GEORGE BROWN AND THE PROTECTOR
by Duane L. Ostler
Copyright 2016 Duane L. Ostler
Book 1 in the ‘Uth Stones’ series.
All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced, copied or distributed without the express permission of the author. If you would like to share this book with someone, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it or have it purchased for you, please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the work of this author
Cover art: Cosmic dust and gas known as “Mystic Mountain” taken by NASA’s Hubble Telescope.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
George Brown was sitting on the bottom step of his back porch watching the stars while rubbing DoorJam (his sister’s cat) behind the ears. It was a warm, clear summer night, and the stars looked like shiny pebbles that someone had scattered across a dark blue carpet. The world was at peace and so were Doorjam and George, who both gazed sleepily up at the night sky, basking in all of its silent glory.
And then it happened.
A brilliant star appeared, gliding slowly across the night sky. Stretched out behind it as it came was an amazing, impossible stream of purple polka dots, etched brightly against the sky.
George rubbed his eyes. He thought he must be seeing things. After all, falling stars might trail a great many things in their wake, but he had never seen one leaving a trail of purple polka dots.
But they were still there, trailing out behind the glowing star like tire tracks in the snow. The polka dots seemed to ripple as if they were in a stream of moving water, fading gradually the farther they were from the star until they eventually wavered out of sight.
The star was coming closer and getting brighter, causing DoorJam to hiss and dart under the porch. George sat transfixed, staring. The star was not moving fast like most shooting stars, but seemed to be crawling along. The purple polka dots stretched out behind it seemed to be getting brighter.
And then suddenly the star dropped straight down like a bolt of lightning. It looked almost as if it was going to hit George’s house, but instead disappeared behind a hill on the outskirts of town and was gone. There was no noise at all when it contacted earth. The purple polka dots all vanished, and the night was again peaceful and still as if nothing had happened.
At this point most 12-year-old boys would probably jump up and run into the house to tell everyone what they had just seen. However, George did not move. He sat perfectly still, continuing to stare at the black sky. Strangely, he wasn’t frightened or overly excited at the star or the purple polka dots. He was used to things like this happening.
Like the time when a little yellow bird had suddenly started following him around everywhere he went—even the bathroom. What was even more bizarre was that it was walking, not flying. It even came into his classroom at school and sat on the corner of his desk, staring at George until his teacher shooed it out the window. The bird kept this up for 2 weeks before it suddenly disappeared.
And last spring, during his science project on rock crystals his fingernails had suddenly broken out in green spots. The spots had lasted almost a week, changing slowly from emerald green to orange before fading out altogether. (His teacher had gotten very excited and happy, thinking that George had contracted some deadly disease, and was disappointed that George wouldn’t turn himself in for extensive examination and testing).
Odd things like this had happened to George ever since that dreaded night, one year ago, that his world had changed—the night his father disappeared.
Somehow George knew that no one else had seen the falling star with its trailing stream of purple polka dots. There would be no bold headline in tomorrow’s paper about it. Somehow, this was something just for him.
Finally, after a long time of staring at where the star had been, George slowly stood up to go into the house. He would tell his mother about the star and the polka dots, even though he knew what her reaction would be. Like all the other strange things that happened to him, she would just tell him he must have been mistaken and then say that she had to peel some potatoes for a casserole (even though they had just had dinner). Then she would stand at the kitchen sink staring out the window while whittling away at several unlucky potatoes until they were the size of toothpicks. Deep down she knew that he was telling the truth, even though she denied it each time. George’s father used to have strange things happen to him too, which he would tell her about. Before he disappeared.
DoorJam came out from under the porch and followed George into the house. He was a smart enough cat to know that after the potatoes were peeled to nothing, George’s mother would sit in the chair by the fireplace and pet him for hours. George sighed. It was times like these that he found himself wishing he were a cat.
The next morning after breakfast George got out his school backpack and filled it with snacks and a canteen of water. His mother watched for a moment, then said quietly, “Where are you going?”
“Oh, I just thought I’d ride my bike over to McGee’s orchard and look around. Nothing much else to do.”
“This wouldn’t have anything to do with that star you think you saw last night would it?” George noticed her hand move involuntarily towards the potato peeler on the counter.
George knew from past experience there was no fooling his mother. “Well,” he said casually, “it did kind of look like it went down over that way. But I also thought I’d climb a few apple trees and steal a little fruit and get sick because they’re green. You know, the normal stuff a boy is supposed to do in the summer.”
“George,” said his mother, worry clearly in her voice, “why don’t you go over to Jason’s house and play instead. Or go see Alex and Michael. I’ll bet they’re dying to see you.”
“Jason’s on vacation the next two weeks,” said George simply. “And Alex and Michael just got a new mini motorcycle.”
George saw his mother cringe. He knew she hated motorcycles as much as all the strange things that kept happening to him.
“Well then, maybe Janet can go with you,” she said. There was an immediate, forceful “I WILL NOT!” from the next room. Then Janet, George’s 16-year-old sister appeared in the doorway. “I planned to go swimming today with Sarah and Jillian. There’s no way I’m going to spend the day in some orchard with little weirdo!” She shot George a malevolent look.
George’s mother sighed. She knew when she was beaten. “Well, at least take your cell phone with you,” she said as Janet left the room. Then she added firmly, “and make sure you stay in range so you can use it!”
Ever since George’s father had disappeared the year before, his mother had insisted that he and Janet pack a cell phone with them everywhere they went. She would try to call them almost every hour—even if they were in school. It used to annoy George’s lunchroom monitor no end (the lunchroom was the only place he could have his phone on at school), especially since his cell phone range to the tune of ‘You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog.’
“Sure mom,” said George, picking up his backpack. “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. It’s summer. What could go wrong?”
Instead of answering, his mother clutched the potato peeler in a death grip. Seeing his chance for another rubdown, DoorJam jumped onto the counter and tried to paw the peeler out of her hand.
“Bye mom,” called George as he hurriedly went out the door. “Be back this afternoon.” Flipping his backpack on his shoulder, he scooped up his bike from the front lawn and took off, not daring to look back.
McGee’s orchard was on the outskirts of the town of Bartletville, California, where George lived. It only took him 10 minutes to get there, since Bartletville was not a very big place. The trees in the orchard were full of little green apples just as George had told his mother, but of course George didn’t eat them. Instead, he circled the orchard, searching for any sign of a fallen star.
He knew this was crazy. That star, or whatever it was, probably fell hundreds or even thousands of miles away, even though it had looked close last night. It was almost guaranteed that he wouldn’t find it. Still, something inside him told George that he needed to look, and if he did, he just might find something.
George’s mother called on the cell phone when he had only been gone for half an hour. Fortunately, he was still in range even though the connection was a bit fuzzy. “George, are you all right?” he heard his mother say in a static-ey voice.
“Sure, mom,” replied George. “I’m just riding around the orchard. There’s no one around.”
“Well, stay off the state road,” said George’s mother. “You know how fast people drive along there. And don’t go traipsing off into the woods. I’m thinking now you should’ve taken DoorJam with you.”
George cringed. He still had scars from the last time he had taken DoorJam on his bike. “I’ll be o.k. mom,” he said cheerfully. “Don’t worry. I’ll be home soon.”
George kept pedaling up and down the country roads near the orchard, between groves of trees and fields of alfalfa and potatoes, looking for any sign of the fallen star. The sun was warm on his back, and the taste of the fresh, country air made him feel good inside. Being out this way reminded him of the time he and his dad had come out here to look for crystallized rocks, like those he later used in his science project. They hadn’t found any, but they had laughed and talked and shared a peanut butter and tomato sandwich (his dad’s favorite) before coming home empty handed.
Thinking about his dad made George suddenly feel very alone. Maybe he should go home.
He was pedaling back toward town when suddenly he stopped. He couldn’t have told anyone why. He just knew he had to. He got off his bike and started walking across an empty field. About halfway across, he stopped again.
Nothing moved. He couldn’t see anything. He shook his head as if to clear away a fog. “This is silly,” he said out loud. “I think I’ll go home.”
His legs paid no attention to what his mouth was saying. Instead of turning and taking him back to his bike, they carried him farther into the field. Suddenly he came upon a shallow dip in the meadow that was not visible until you were up close.
And that is where he found what he was looking for.
Buried halfway in the dirt was a large, ugly, greyish ball of rock, about three feet in diameter. It was pock-marked and bumpy, as if it had been battered and slammed about by a giant who was playing ping pong. On one side, a strange, hook-like extension stuck out, about two feet long, pointed curiously toward the north. Steam was rising from the dirt where the ball had hit and skidded across the ground. The ball didn’t look bright or impressive now, and there were no purple polka dots in sight.
As George stared at the ball, he shivered even though it was a hot day. He couldn’t say why, but there was something strange about the fallen star that made him feel uneasy. He had thought he would be elated to find it, but now he wished he hadn’t come at all.
He was turning to go when suddenly he noticed a glimmer in the grass at his feet. Kneeling down he saw a roundish, clear rock that sparkled in the sunlight. Fascinated, George saw that he could see right through the rock as if it were clear glass. The rock was about an inch thick.
He reached out and touched it. Instantly, he felt an electric shock run through him from head to toe. He pulled back in alarm. The rock lay in the soil, sparkling and winking up at him. Then he quickly reached down and picked it up. It caused a strange, tingly feeling in his hand and fingers. In spite of the warm day, the rock was perfectly cold, like an ice cube. After staring at it for a moment, George put the rock in his pocket. It was time to go home.
While riding his bike home, George could feel the rock pressing coldly against his leg. He had to reach into his pocket every once in a while and move it from spot to spot to keep his leg from freezing.
When George got home his mother was overjoyed to see him, but not as pleased when he described the gray ball he had seen half buried in the field. “Promise me you’ll never go back there alone,” she said firmly.
“Aw, mom,” said George. “It’s just a big, ugly ball in the ground. It can’t hurt me.”
“Promise me!” she said firmly, through pursed lips. Ever since his father disappeared, she had distrusted anything strange or unusual that George came across, and made him promise to stay away from it if possible. He knew there was no way of getting around it. “Oh, all right,” said George with a sigh.
In a strange way however, he was secretly glad that she had made him promise to stay away from it. While a strange fascination about the ball seemed to draw him to it, he had to admit that he wasn’t sure he wanted to go back there because of the eerie, cold feeling that seemed to cling to it.
As George went to his room he took the little, clear rock he had found out of his pocket and stared at it once more. It was still cold as ice, and made his fingers tingle. At times it almost seemed to glow.
He was glad he hadn’t told his mom anything about it. She would probably have insisted that he get rid of it, just like she had forbidden him to go back to the fallen star. But there was something strange and intriguing about the rock that made George feel like he had to keep it. He looked carefully at it for a minute. Even though it was clear as glass, he noticed that shadows seemed to flicker across it at times. Finally, he put it back into his pocket.
Anyway, he told himself, it was just a rock. There was nothing too unusual about a boy finding a rock and bringing it home.
Little did he know how wrong he was.
“George. It’s time to go. Are you ready?”
George was in his room, working on a model airplane.
“Sure, mom. Be there in a minute.” He kept working on the model. The last thing in the world he wanted to do was go, but he knew he had no choice.
Midsummer exams. The most cruel, disgusting thing that anyone could have dreamed up. Mr. Smith, the school principal at Bartletville Middle School, had come up with the idea a few years ago of giving a test to all of his pupils in the second week of July, to see if they were retaining what they had learned over the previous school year. Every parent in town had been excited about the idea, but to the students themselves, test day was like finding a big spot of mold on your sandwich after you had already eaten half of it.
“George!” called his mother again. “Come on! You’re going to be late!”
“All right,” answered George wearily, putting down the model airplane. He knew there was no way of avoiding it. As he passed his dresser on the way out of his room, he noticed the clear rock he had found at the fallen star. It sat there silently, seeming to beckon to him somehow. He picked it up. It felt cold as always, and again caused his fingers to tingle. He put it in his pocket, then went out to meet his fate.
The tests were every bit as disgusting as George had expected them to be. The history portion was full of questions about Lewis and Clark that George struggled with. He didn’t do much better in the science portion on earthquakes. But all of that was easy compared to the algebra questions in the math portion of the test. George just sat in helpless frustration, looking at question after question that he couldn’t answer. They hadn’t covered this last year in school! How could he be tested on something he had never learned?
As George sat staring helplessly at the math questions on his desk, he suddenly realized there was something very hot in his pocket. Reaching inside, he found that it was the clear rock from the fallen star, which had been cold as an ice cube just a short time before. George took the rock out of his pocket and put it on his desk. It was almost too hot to touch. Then he went back to trying to answer—or rather, guess—the impossible math questions.
After making a few wild guesses, George moved the rock and turned the page. The page was crinkly and wouldn’t stay down. George slid the rock over the page, on top of some of the questions. It made a good paperweight.
George was staring absently at the rock, trying to decide what to guess on question 13, when he suddenly noticed that he could see numbers on the page through the rock. At first he assumed he was just seeing the math questions on his test, but when he looked closer, he realized that there were other numbers as well. In fascination he moved the rock—which was still very hot—across the page. Whenever he moved it over a test question, he saw not only the question itself through the rock, but the answer as well! When he moved the rock away, the answer disappeared.
This was impossible. How could a rock answer math questions? George’s hand was trembling, even though it was not cold. This was clearly no ordinary rock. What was it? Why had he been drawn to it, and felt such a strange fascination every time he gazed through it? Could it hurt him? Was it his for a reason?
George heard a noise from the front of the class. Mr. Dalton, the teacher giving the test, was staring at him in an unfriendly way. Quickly George picked up his pencil and went to work on the math questions. At first he set the rock aside and went back to trying to guess the answers. But the rock almost seemed to beckon to him to use it, and soon he was sliding it across the paper over the questions he did not know, rapidly writing down the answers he saw through it.
Then a sudden thought occurred to George. What if the answers were wrong? After all, how could a rock do math, or know what the right answers were? Flipping back the page, George moved the rock over the easiest question, the only one he felt reasonably certain he had gotten right. He could see the question and his handwritten answer through the rock. He then moved the rock to the next question, one he had guessed at. This time he saw not only the question and his handwritten answer through the rock, but a red line through his answer and the correct answer written next to it!
George stared at the rock again. It had corrected his answer! This was impossible. But impossible or not, there was the corrected answer in front of him. Slowly, George wrote down the correct answer, then after correcting a few more of his first guesses, flipped back to the page he had been on. He continued to work his way through the test, writing down the answers he saw through the rock.
This was definitely better than guessing. Suddenly a new thought came into George’s mind. Was this cheating? After all, he was being helped to answer questions he otherwise could not have done. George pondered for a moment, not sure what to think. Finally, he went back to answering the test questions. All he knew was that he had never studied any of this in school last year and he didn’t know any of the answers, or even how to do this type of math. He finished the entire math portion of the test just as it was ending.
While waiting for the next part of the test to start, he stared at the rock in fascination. Clearly this was no ordinary rock. But where had it come from, and why had it come to him?
The next section of the test was spelling, one of the few subjects George felt confident about. Once the test began, he immediately moved the rock over the first misspelled word to see what would happen. All he saw through the rock was the same misspelled word. He tried the next one, and the next. The result was the same. There were no answers. George also noticed that the rock was cooling down, and was no longer as hot to touch, although it still caused his fingers to tingle. He wrote down a wrong answer to one question and moved the rock over it. There was no correction this time.
What could it all mean? Could the rock do math, but not spelling? Or had it just decided to give no more answers for the day—if a rock could decide anything. With a sigh, George pushed the rock aside and began working on the misspelled words. He didn’t have time to try to figure out the secrets of the rock now.
Spelling was the last portion of the test, so George didn’t have a chance to try it out again. When the test ended, he put it back into his pocket. The rock was once again as cold as ice. George didn’t know what it all meant, but knew that he would try out the rock on everything he could think of when he got home.
Over the next several days, George tried the rock on everything. He held it over the crossword puzzle in the newspaper, but saw nothing underneath (except the empty crossword puzzle, of course). He held it up to the TV screen during game show questions, but never saw anything different through it. He got out one of his dad’s old college algebra books and held it up to the questions, but there were never any answers underneath. He held it over newspapers and magazines, books and ingredients labels on cans of food. Nothing. He even held it up to Door Jam’s eye and to the back of his sister’s head (when she wasn’t looking) to see if he could see any evidence of intelligent life through it. But other than a twinkle in Door Jam’s eye, he saw nothing out of the ordinary through it either time.
‘What could it be? he asked himself again and again. Why would it show him the answers to his midsummer math exam, but nothing else? Why was it always cold as ice, but had been hot during the math test when it gave him the answers? More than ever, George wanted now to go back to the fallen star where he had found the rock, to see if there were any other rocks like it, or any clues about what it was or where it came from. But his mother had again forbidden him to go there after she read an article in the newspaper that scientists from the university had found it, and were saying that it contained strange trace elements that even they could not identify.
The third night after the midsummer exams, George had the dream again. It was always the same, and it always left him feeling confused afterward. It had come to him often over the last year, ever since his father had disappeared.
In the dream, he saw his father climb through the window of his bedroom, come over next to George and sit down on the edge of his bed. He didn’t say a word, and even though George wanted to cry out, to call his name and jump up and grab him, for some reason he couldn’t speak or move. His father then took George’s right hand into his own hands and silently began writing on George’s palm with his finger. George could never tell what he was writing.
This went on for some time until George’s father abruptly stopped, then walked over and climbed out the window and disappeared, all still without saying a word. After this, George always woke up. He would always jump out of bed and go quickly over to the window, but his father was never in sight.
George had mixed feelings about the dream. Part of him enjoyed it, because it allowed him to spend a few minutes with his father again. But there was also something eerie about it that made George feel uncomfortable. Maybe it was because his father always looked so sad. Or maybe it was the strange, tingly feeling he always felt while his father was writing in his hand, a tingling that was uncomfortable and almost painful.
It was a different kind of tingling than when he held the clear rock he had found by the fallen star. Yet somehow, it was almost the same.
George lay staring at the ceiling for some time after the dream, unable to go back to sleep. The dream had seemed so real. It always did. Had his father really been there? It would be both frightening and comforting if he had.
Suddenly, George noticed that there seemed to be a glowing light radiating from somewhere near the foot of his bed. Fearful yet curious, he sat up and looked over the edge of his bed to where the light was coming from. It seemed to be glowing in his pants pocket. Then George remembered that he had left the rock in his pocket when he went to bed.
Slowly he got out of bed, reached down and pulled the rock from his pocket. It was hot and glowing brightly, but was not too uncomfortable to hold. As soon as he picked it up, George felt strangely drawn to the window of his room. He stood there for several minutes, staring out at the twinkling stars while holding the glowing rock in his palm.
Suddenly, as he was gazing at a particularly bright star, a very strange thing happened. George’s vision seemed to zoom right out into space, as if he were looking through a high powered telescope that was focusing on a distant object with tremendous speed. The bright star he had been looking at grew rapidly larger until George realized with a shock that it was not a star at all. It seemed to be a spacecraft of some sort that was glowing softly in the blackness of space.
It was long and silvery, with numerous protruding arms and devices, like so many tentacles. George’s vision seemed to be zeroing in on a rectangular patch of light that George realized was a window. As his view of the window expanded, the rapid telescoping effect of his vision seemed to slow down, until at last it stopped with the window consuming all of his vision, and blotting out everything else.
Inside the window, he saw a dog. At least it looked somewhat like a dog—and yet, it didn’t. The thing had a protruding snout and hairy face like that of a dog or wolf, and slobber was dripping from its protruding fangs. Yet there was something very undoglike in its appearance that George could not identify. The creature was looking to the side, as if looking at or listening to someone or something just beyond the frame of the window that George could not see.
But it was the creature’s eyes that most captivated George as he looked at it. Although they were coal black, they seemed to be lit within by a smoldering fire. There was something frightening and deeply unsettling about those eyes. And as George watched transfixed, the dog creature slowly turned toward him as if it somehow was aware that it was being looked at.
The instant the eyes of the creature met with those of George, he felt a shock of cold leap out at him like a tongue of living flame. With a cry George stumbled back, raising his hand to shield himself from the cruelty that emanated from the creature’s eyes like a black shadow. And in that instant, George was horrified to see his father just behind the creature, his deep, soul-less eyes radiating an unspeakable sense of sadness.
Overwhelmed, George dropped the rock he had been holding. The instant he did so, the vision vanished and he found himself staring out at the starry night once more.
George was shaking and breathing heavily, the horror of what he had just seen still grappling with his mind. Was his father a prisoner of the strange dog-like creature he had seen? Was he in pain? The memory of the soul-less look in his father’s eyes was fixed in George’s mind, torturing him.
George looked down at the strange rock that he had dropped. Its glow was growing dim, and George knew that if he picked it up, it would already be cool to the touch, and would soon turn icy. What was it? Where had it come from? What power did it hold? He shook his head as if to clear it from a fog. He simply didn’t have the answers.
After a time, George gingerly picked up the rock and put it on his dresser, then got back into bed. Now at least he could watch it, to see if it started to glow once more.
It was a long time before George could go to sleep again. When he did, his dreams were troubled with images of slobbering dog-like creatures with eyes of malice, laughing cruelly while controlling his father with puppet strings.
The next day, with the sun shining brightly through George’s window, the vision of the night before seemed absurd and almost comical. He decided he must have been imagining things. He had learned that his mind could run away from him sometimes in the middle of the night, when the world was dark. How could he see a spaceship way out in space from his bedroom window? And how could some dog-like creatures on a spaceship of some kind be holding his father captive? The idea seemed ludicrous, although it was still somewhat unsettling.
As the day wore on, George grew fitful and restless. He needed something to take his mind off the vision of the night before. Finally, in a fit of extreme boredom, George agreed to go grocery shopping with his mother. Normally he avoided grocery shopping like the plague, but Jason was still out of town and Alex and Michael had just come down with the measles.
Once in the store, George’s mother looked at her shopping list and frowned. “I need a can of pickled peaches for your aunt Agnes,” she said to George, as if buying such a bizarre thing was an everyday occurrence. “She called the other day and asked me to bring her some when we go there this weekend. It’s for some new diet she’s trying.”
“Pickled peaches?” said George in disgust. “How could anybody eat that?”
His mother looked at him sweetly and smiled. “You know your Aunt Agnes. Anyway, could you go and look for it? I really don’t know where such a thing would be found in this store, and I’ve got other things to get.”
“I suppose,” replied George unenthusiastically. There was nothing else to do, other than look at cereal boxes.
George set off down the aisles to begin his search. He quickly found the canned fruit section, but there were no pickled peaches. He tried the diet section, but there was nothing there either. He was just about to go back and tell his mother pickled peaches didn’t exist when he sensed something hot in his pocket. It was the rock from the fallen star, which he now always carried with him.
George pulled it out and looked at it. He held it up to the light. Nothing looked different through it. Why was it hot now? There were no test questions in a grocery store to solve or spaceships through a dark window to see. With mounting curiosity, George held it up to a maze on the back of a cereal box. He saw nothing different through the rock at all.
Putting it back in his pocket, George turned to go find his mother. But, unexpectedly, he found himself heading instead to another section of the store, to an aisle he hadn’t been down yet. Halfway down this aisle, on the right, he found the pickled food section. And on the lowest shelf was a can of pickled peaches.
With mounting excitement, George pulled the rock from his pocket. He held it up to the can of pickled peaches, but saw nothing different through it. The rock was not as hot now. It was cooling down fast. George put it back in his pocket.
What did it all mean? First it answered math questions and now it somehow helped him find a can of pickled peaches. What would it do next? Wasn’t there any way to control it? And why was it helping him, but only at unexpected times?
Suddenly George heard his mother’s voice behind him. “I see you found the pickled peaches. I never would have thought of looking here.”
As George handed her the can, she squinted her eyes at him. “What’s wrong?” she asked suddenly.
“Nothing,” said George quickly. He knew she had an uncanny ability to sense when things were not quite normal. “I was just surprised to actually find a can of pickled peaches. I thought such a thing couldn’t exist.”
George’s mother gave him a long, hard look. Then she sighed and looked away. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “It’s just that …”
George looked at the floor. He knew what she was thinking. She used to sense when strange things happened to his father too.
“O.k., lets get back to this list,” she said abruptly. “Go and find me a hairnet.”
When George got home, he went to his room and took the rock from his pocket again. Going over to the window, he held it up to the sunlight. It seemed to magnify the light shining through it, making everything around it brighter. He turned it around. It seemed to glitter inside, as if happy to be in the sunlight. But it was still cold as ice. Finally, George put it back on his dresser.
Where had the rock come from, and what powers did it have? That it was not an ordinary rock was now obvious. But why had it come to him? Was he supposed to use it somehow? If so, how was he supposed to control it? And how would he find the answers to these questions?
Suddenly George heard a voice behind him, deep and raspy.
“George Brown!” it hissed. “I’ve been waiting for you!”
George whirled around and found himself looking at one of the strangest creatures he had ever seen. It was about two feet tall with dark brown, leathery skin. It wore only a brown robe wrapped around its middle, tied with a curious red belt, studded with shiny jewels. It had only three toes on each foot, but the feet were very large, while the legs were short, fat and stubby. The creature stared at George with protruding, lamp-like eyes, then raised one of its stubby arms, wagging its two fingers at him.
Before George could utter a cry or any sound at all, the creature spoke in the same raspy voice as before.
“The world faces everlasting darkness and fire in just a few days, George Brown. But your sacrifice may be able to stop it. You must seek out the protector to better understand what you must do.”
Stillness hung in the air while George stared, speechless at the creature. Then, with an unexpected ‘pop!’ the creature disappeared, without even leaving a wrinkle on George’s bedspread to show its passing.
George gaped at where the creature had been sitting only a split second before. Then he cautiously approached the bed and ran his hand over the bedspread. It wasn’t even warm. He looked all around the room. The only thing that looked different was the strange rock he had put on his dresser, which seemed to be glowing.
George walked over and touched it. It was hot—yet only a minute ago it had been as cold as ice! George picked it up. With amazing speed it seemed to cool to his touch, and was icy again within a few seconds. Quietly George put it in his pocket then looked around the room once more. Things were getting weird. George had experienced many strange things, but had never had a visit by a bizarre creature like that before.
He sat down on the edge of his bed, his mind racing. What did it all mean? Who was that creature, and who was the protector? What had it meant about the world facing fire and ice? What type of sacrifice was it talking about? Nothing made any sense.
He shook his head as if to clear it from a fog, then stood up and headed for the door. With things going the way they were, it was definitely time for a visit to his secret grove.
A short distance from George’s house was a city park. It had the usual worn playground with a swing set for little kids at one end, and a scattering of park benches and trees throughout. Almost in the center of the park was a small patch of tangled shrubs, like a little island. If a person knew just which bush to duck under, and just which way to wriggle through the undergrowth, he could worm his way into the center of the little bushy grove where there was a tiny clear space, in the middle of which was a large, knotted tree stump. If a person sat on the stump he could see the whole park and the streets beyond without being seen. This was George’s secret grove, where he often went to ponder and think while watching what was going on in the park. And this is where he now went.
After wriggling through the bushes, George plopped himself down on the tree stump and rested his head in his hands. It was time to try and figure out what was going on. Nothing that had been happening made any sense. What was the strange, clear rock he had found, and why had it seemed to come to him? It certainly seemed to have some unusual powers. Was it possible to learn more of what they were and how to control them?
And who was the strange creature that had appeared in George’s room, with its gloomy warning? For that matter, who was the protector that it had told him to find, and how was George to find him? Was there any connection between the stone and the creature’s visit, or this unknown protector?
George didn’t have any answers. All he was stuck with were questions. Usually he could clear his mind and reach important decisions when he was in his secret grove. But today he seemed to be up against a brick wall.
He pulled a little pouch from his pocket that he had found yesterday to put his rock in, and shook the rock out onto his palm. It was icy cold, and glittered in the sunlight that filtered through the trees. He held it up and looked through it at the surrounding bushes. It was like looking through a piece of glass, without any distortions at all.
After a moment George put the rock back in the pouch. Absently he twirled the pouch around his finger by its drawstring. Looking through the leafy branches all around him, he could see only two people in the park. There was an old woman walking her dog on the south side near the picnic tables, and a middle aged man sleeping on a bench near the street. It looked like it was going to be a quiet day.
Suddenly there was a flutter of wings and George looked down to see a small yellow bird staring up at him. It reminded him of the strange bird that had followed him for two weeks the previous year.
“Hello,” said George with a smile. The bird cocked his head to look at him with just one eye.
“I’m George Brown,” said George. “What’s your name?” The bird shifted its head to the other side and looked at him curiously. “You look like you understand what I’m saying,” said George with a smile.
Suddenly the bird flew up and grabbed the pouch out of George’s hand and flew off with it.
“Hey!” cried George as he lunged after the bird. Tripping over a branch, George lost his balance and crashed through a bush, then stumbled all the way out of his hiding place and onto the park’s lawn. He looked up to see the bird hopping about with the pouch hanging from its beak, just a few feet in front of him.
“Give that back!” yelled George as he lurched to his feet and charged after the bird. Quick as a wink it darted out of the way, fluttering just out of his hands. George chased it across the park, nearly running into the lady walking her dog. Then he watched in dismay as the bird flew into the open window of an old, 1960s Volkswagen ‘Beetle’, parked next to where the man was asleep on the park bench.
“Blasted bird!” muttered George as he cautiously approached the car window. He looked carefully around for anyone who might be the car’s owner. The man on the park bench was still asleep and no one else was in sight.
George carefully peered through the window on the passenger side but couldn’t see the bird anywhere. He looked up and down the street again to make sure no one was watching, then poked his head in the window. The bird was still nowhere to be seen.
“Darn thing must be under the seat,” mumbled George, leaning in the open window to see if he could spot the bird anywhere. The area under the seat was still too far below him for George to see anything. He leaned farther into the window, stretching as far as he could. But it still wasn’t far enough. He tried to lean in just a bit farther—and suddenly found himself falling.
What happened next was so strange that George could never really describe it afterward, no matter how hard he tried. When he first lost his balance and started to fall, his head had only been a short distance from the bottom of the passenger seat. But to his amazement, as he fell George watched as the floor of the car seemed to shrink away from him and get farther away the longer he fell toward it. Twisting around, George looked up to see the open window far above him, which seemed as massive and distant as a giant movie screen.
George finally landed with a thump, and for a second the wind was knocked out of him. Then he quickly stood up—and was amazed to see the passenger seat of the car towering like a distant cliff, far above his head.
George stared down at his hands and legs and feet. They looked the same as always. Yet, amazing and impossible as it was, he was now apparently a miniature version of his former self! In some impossible way he had shrunk while falling through the window and was only about two inches tall.
George stared dumfounded at his new surroundings. Straight ahead of him was the area under the passenger seat that he had been straining to see before he fell. He could see scraps of paper bigger than bed sheets and bits of popcorn that looked larger than tree stumps. The bird was nowhere to be seen, and considering how small he now was, George was kind of glad.
To George’s right was the gearshift lever, towering taller than a tree. To the left George could see far above him the rotating handle used to roll down the car window. The handle looked as big as a horse.
Turning around, George saw more popcorn kernels scattered across the car floor, like miniature boulders. And then, to his surprise, as he peered into the semi-darkness towards the front of the car, he saw a door exactly his size!
“Wow!” said George softly. “This is incredible!” He knew he should probably feel frightened at suddenly being only 2 inches tall, but he was strangely calm. He couldn’t explain why. It was the same relaxed, curious feeling as the night he had seen the falling star, and had known that somehow it was meant just for him.
He began walking cautiously toward the door. It was so quiet that it seemed as if the world had stopped. He tiptoed forward as carefully as he could; trying to avoid any noise in case someone was on the other side of the door.
But when he was nearly there, the silence was shattered by the ringing of his cell phone.
George stared stupidly at his phone for a minute, as it blared ‘You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog!’ It had apparently shrunk with him and was now no bigger than the tip of a pencil. He was surprised it still worked at that size. Finally he answered it.
“George?” came his mother’s worried voice over the telephone. “Are you o.k.?”
“Yeah, sure mom,” said George as quietly as he could. He knew there was probably little reason to be quiet since the phone had made enough noise when it rang to wake the dead. But he hadn’t forgotten he was in someone else’s car and that the bird (who might be hungry) was probably still around.
“Where are you?” his mother asked. “Your voice sounds faint.”
“At the park,” replied George truthfully. He wasn’t ready just yet to tell her he had shrunk to about 2 inches in height.
‘Well, that’s o.k. I guess,” said George’s mom. “But I want you back home in one hour, o.k.?”
“O.k.,” said George weakly. He knew he probably wouldn’t be back by then (or perhaps for a long time after that) given his current size. So, he could expect another more frantic call from his mom in exactly one hour. But what else could he say?
“One hour!” his mother repeated forcefully. “Bye.”
“Bye, mom,” George said weakly. He hooked the phone on his belt and turned back to the door. Somehow he suspected that if he had any hope of finding how to return to his normal size or of ever getting home—in one hour or not—he had to go through that door.
It looked like a very ordinary door, with a few scuffs and scrapes at the bottom, and a dull brass handle in the middle. If it wasn’t so small and weren’t located in such an unusual place, George would have paid no attention to it.
He listened at the door for a moment but could hear no sound from the other side. Slowly he turned the handle and pushed on the door, and as it swung open he was amazed at what he saw.
In front of him was a large room, with some pieces of furniture and a number of strange looking devices in it. Nearest the door was a good-sized booth, big enough to stand in, with clothing, fur and feathers lying on little shelves inside. Next to it was a large oval shaped mirror that seemed to be hanging in mid air, with nothing holding it up. Farther into the room was a couch that looked normal except for several rake-like claws sticking out of it at odd angles. Next to it was a lamp table with two big, strong looking arms jutting out of it. Against the far wall was what looked like a refrigerator that seemed to be wearing a bizarre type of purple sweater, and by it was a sink that appeared to be made out of towels. There were a number of other odd desks, booths, boxes and strange contraptions scattered about the room, and at the far end was what looked like a doorway without a door, the border or outline of which was shimmering and glowing and constantly shifting with different colors.
In the middle of the room, seated in front of a desk on a little stool, was a bizarre looking creature. It had what seemed to be fuzzy, grayish skin, and a long, scrawny neck with a bald, head at the top. When George came through the door the creature turned and smiled at him, showing a mouthful of green, triangle-shaped teeth. It had big, bulbous eyes and a crooked nose, and the skin on its face hung in loose grey folds and flabs.
“Good morning,” the creature said in a voice that sounded like water going over pebbles. It made a half-hearted effort to smooth out the wrinkled, red smock it was wearing, then said, “You are George Brown, and I am known as the protector.” Then it scratched its bald head with two long fingers, making a sound like a mouse running through weeds. “Or, at least, I was known as the protector a century ago. Or rather, two centuries ago. Or it could have been only yesterday. The time on this planet always gets me so confused. And so does this funny language of yours that took me so long to learn.”
George opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out. He was still so shocked at having been shrunk, and the strangeness of the room and the bizarre looking creature that he couldn’t say a word.
“Oh, my!” said the protector, smacking his head with a hollow sound. “Where are my manners?” He rushed over to the refrigerator wearing the sweater, opened it up (causing the sweater to stretch so much it looked like it would rip), and rummaged around inside with a lot of banging and mumbling. Finally he emerged holding two glasses with some type of red liquid in them. Waddling over to George, he handed one up to him (even though George was now only 2 inches tall, the protector was even shorter and wobbled around the room on stubby legs that had six-toed feet).
“Drink up,” commanded the protector. “It’s called Vleck. It helps you get used to being shrunk when you’ve never been shrunk before.” The protector rubbed his chin. “Although sometimes it can make you shrink more if you drink too much. But I wouldn’t worry about that, since I think I gave you the right amount. I guess. Drink up! It tastes great!”
George took the glass but didn’t drink any. He was small enough already. The Protector however downed his Vleck in three gulps.
“Delicious!” he said as he licked his purple lips. “Even if you’re used to being shrunk.”
He waved his three-fingered hand toward the couch while going over to put his glass in the towel sink. “Have a seat. Or I guess I should say, feel free to sit down. You can’t actually have the seat because if you took it out that door it would unshrink and break my whole car to pieces because it’s too big to fit in the passenger seat of a Volkswagen.”
“Unshrink?” said George, finding his voice at last. “You mean if something goes through that door, it will go back to normal size? Even me?”
“Yes, absolutely, if you walk far enough out toward the seat to get away from the shrink zone,” said the Protector. Then he paused. “Although sometimes things only seem to go back to about 70% of their original size, if I remember right. But you have nothing to worry about since you’re a growing boy, and you’d soon grow back the other 30%.”
Before George could say that he didn’t think he could grow 30% of his normal size very quickly, he suddenly felt something furry rubbing his foot. Looking down he saw a pink fluff ball rolling back and forth across his shoe. With a yell he jumped back, spilling his Vleck and nearly knocking over the mirror hanging in mid-air (but of course it didn't fall since there was nothing supporting it to start with).
“No need to get excited,” said the Protector as he picked up the whimpering fluff ball. “It’s just Emberly. She’s a Praetorian.” He patted her gently. Then he added sadly, “She’s the last of her race.”
“What’s a Praetorian?” asked George, forgetting for the moment the strangeness of his surroundings, and the billion other questions that would have been more sensible to ask. He reached out a tentative hand to touch Emberly. Her fur felt soft as silk. “And why is she the last of her race?”
“A Praetorian is someone from the planet Preatoria of course,” replied the Protector. “It’s in the Gularia sector.” Then he scratched his carrot shaped ear. “Or is it the Soolmar sector? I always get those two mixed up.”
“Anyway,” he continued, shoving Emberly unceremoniously into George’s hands, “she’s the last of her race because the others were all petrified. Turned to stone. A Nulami trade ship stopped on Preatoria one day and found nothing but a bunch of Preatorian sized rocks all over the place.”
George held Emberly awkwardly in his hands. She kept bouncing from hand to hand and humming happily.
“She likes you,” said the Protector approvingly. “Maybe you could marry her someday. I’m going to turn her into a human, you know.”
George nearly dropped Emberly in shock. “Marry her?!!” he cried.
The Protector laughed. “Oh, I forgot. Boys your age on this planet don’t like girls yet. Perfectly natural. It’s like that on my planet too for the first 45 stars of a person’s life. But of course, on Kena, people can’t actually get married anyway until the passing of 60 stars. A very long time.”
“60 stars?” said George blankly. So much had happened in the last half hour that his mind couldn’t keep up with it all. He could feel a headache coming on.
“That’s 5,000 years in your time,” the Protector said casually. He flopped down on the couch and immediately two of the claws that were poking out of it at odd angles started scratching his back. “Ooooh! That feels good!” said the Protector, shifting around so the claws could reach him more easily. He rolled his eyes happily.
George’s mind was still reeling. There was silence for a moment (except for the scritch-scratching of the claws on the Protector’s back) while George tried to figure out which of his 1000’s of questions he should ask first. Finally he said, “You’re from another world? A place called Kona?”
“That’s ‘Kena,’, not Kona,” the Protector replied. “Kona is a city in Hawaii, but Kena is a planet. It’s about 50 billion light years from here, out in the Lipet sector. Just past Nagow, the amusement park planet.” The Protector smiled and his eyes glowed. “I’m going to stop there on my way home when I finish my assignment here in another three years.”
“Your assignment?” George repeated without thinking.
“Yep,” replied the Protector. “It’s part of our education to go out into the universe for five stars, pick a planet, and take an assignment as its protector. I’ve been here for almost five stars now, so my time as protector on this planet is almost up. Then I’ll go back to Kena and go to high school.”
“High school?!” exclaimed George in surprise.
“Yeah,” said the protector sheepishly. “By comparison with the age of people on my planet, I’m just a teenager. Even though I came here in the year 1500 and something or other, and I’ve been here for almost 500 years of your time. Do you want to see my contract?”
George stared at him uncomprehendingly.
“I had it signed right after I got here. We’re supposed to make sure the natives want us to protect their planet before we get started, you know.” He jumped up and went over to a tall structure that looked something like a bookshelf. It had a number of oddly shaped volumes and wrappings along its shelves. Carefully the protector pulled out a faded parchment that looked like it might crumble into dust any second. Carrying it back to George, he pointed proudly to a large ‘X’ at the bottom.
“That’s the signature of Chief Palomuk of the Paiute tribe. He was the Indian chief in charge of this area when I arrived in about the year 1500 or so as measured in your time, and he agreed to let me be the protector of this planet for 500 years.” The protector looked at the parchment wistfully. “Chief Palomuk was quite a guy. He couldn’t read or write, but not only did he stop his braves from killing me when I arrived, he offered for me to marry one of his daughters after he signed this. Of course I declined since she’s an alien to me, and I’m too young to marry anyway.”
The protector then looked across the room as if seeing people and events from long ago written on the walls. “It’s been quite an exciting time since then until now. I didn’t think I’d get much activity protecting this little out of the way planet, but boy was I wrong! Someday, I’ll have to tell you some of the things that have happened and the times I’ve had while protecting your planet. Or maybe I’ll just write a book about it.”
“However!” said the protector loudly before George could say anything, “I believe you came here because a certain little yellow bird stole that.” He pointed to George’s leather pouch, which was lying on a purple table that was wearing rubber boots on its legs.
“My pouch!” cried George, rushing to the table. He quickly looked inside and was glad to see that the clear rock was still there.
“I figured it must be something valuable,” said the Protector casually. “That’s why I used the transformer to turn me into a bird, so I could steal it from you and lead you here.”
“You were the yellow bird?” asked George in wonder.
“Yep,” said the protector. “Actually I’m not normally a bird. I only became one with the help of the transformer.” He waived casually toward a little booth with orange curtains sitting next to the door. “It can transform anyone into anything. Very handy when you’re hungry and don’t have much cash. You can change yourself into a fly and get full in no time in someone’s kitchen – as long as you don’t get swatted!”
The protector waddled over and put the parchment back into the bookshelf. “I had a visit almost a year ago from a Ziphon. I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of a Ziphon before?” Seeing the befuddled look on George’s face, he continued. “Ziphons never say much, you know. Probably because they live sideways through time, so they never quite know when they’re going to be whisked off to yesterday or next week or last year or next Tuesday.”
“Anyway, this Ziphon appeared right here on my couch and said in his gravelly voice, ‘you need to help George Brown. He will soon be called upon to help save his people from fire and ice.’ Then—pop!—he was gone.”
“I had a visit from a Ziphon too!” exclaimed George. “Just a little while ago! He told me to find you—the protector. Only I didn’t know who the protector was.”
“That’s me,” said the protector, puffing out his flabby chest in pride. “Looks like we found each other just like the Ziphon wanted us to. Of course, I found you quite awhile ago, although I had to follow you around for awhile to make sure you were the George Brown I was looking for.”
“Then you were the bird that was following me around last year!” exclaimed George. “Did you get hurt when the teacher shooed you out the window?”
“Not at all,” the protector replied. “Oh, by the way, sorry about those spots on your fingernails. I was trying to help you out with your rock crystals, so you could find some really impressive ones, and I guess I got carried away. You got a temporary case of crystal-itis – nothing serious, mind you, but very common where I come from.”
“So you did that too!” cried George, looking quickly at his fingernails. “Is the crystal-itis gone?”
“Yes,” said the protector, a little sheepishly. “Like I said, it was nothing serious. I thought the rock crystals might be important to whatever you need to do to save your people, so that’s why I tried to help. The Ziphon never told me what you’re going to do for your people.”
“Why not?” asked George.
“Ziphons are mysterious,” replied the protector. “They never tell you why. In fact, they tell you hardly anything. But it’s always best to heed their warnings since they usually know the future—they’ve been there, you know.”
George thought for a moment. “So, the Ziphon told you I would be called on to help save my people,” he said slowly. “I wonder if this rock I found is related somehow to all of this.” He pulled the clear rock from the pouch and held it up to the light.
“Gorzubee!” cried the protector, jumping back. Then, looking embarrassed, he said, “excuse my language, but that looks like an Uth stone! Where in the galaxy did you get it?”
“I found it a few days ago next to a fallen star near here,” said George. “It’s helped me solve math problems and find a jar of pickled peaches at the store, and seems to have some mysterious power, but I don’t know how to control it. You say it’s an ‘Uth stone?’”
“It looks like it,” replied the protector. “Uth stones are very powerful and very deadly. Little is known about them, and they’re very rare. I’ve never seen one before – most people never do in their whole lives!”
The protector turned and headed for the mirror hanging in mid air by the entrance door. “Come over here and we’ll look it up on the View All,” he said. “Only keep it away from me! I don’t want to touch it. If I had known what was in that pouch I wouldn’t have picked it up when I was a bird.”
George carefully put the rock back into the pouch, trying as he did so to touch it as little as possible. He had never thought of the rock as being dangerous before.
Standing before the mirror hanging in mid air, the protector commanded, “Show me what you know about the Uth stone.” Immediately the mirror clouded over, and then some pictures and text appeared, looking very much like an encyclopedia entry. One picture showed a rock similar to George’s, while another showed – from a great distance – a very bright planet that seemed to be almost transparent. The text read as follows:
Uth Stone: An extremely rare and dangerous transparent gem which appears to have unique powers. Only three such stones have been observed in modern recorded history, and the possessor of each met an untimely and tragic end under mysterious circumstances. The Uth Stone can only be obtained from the planet Uth (see picture). The planet appears to be solid, but radiates such an unusual protective shield that no explorer has been able to make a landing. According to ancient legends on nearby planets, only the pure in heart can reach the surface of Uth, and only they can take stones from it. However, this has never been substantiated. The nature and extent of the powers of the Uth stone are unknown, since all three of the previously mentioned stones perished with their possessor. See also, Uth, planet of.
“Well,” said the protector after they had finished reading the entry, “that doesn’t sound very good for people like you who have the misfortune of possessing an Uth stone.”
George found that he was gripping the bag holding the stone so tightly that he could feel the icy coldness of the rock even through the thick folds of leather.
“But I wouldn’t pay any attention to it if I were you,” the protector said with a casual waive of his hand. “The View All has been giving me a lot of doom and gloom entries like this lately.” He leaned over to George and whispered confidentially, “it recently wanted me to string a bunch of Hollywood style bright lights around it to show off its so called ‘beauty.’ Ever since I refused, it’s been mad at me.”
To George’s amazement, the Uth entry in the mirror disappeared and in bold, bright letters, the words appeared, “THE PROTECTOR IS A STICK-IN-THE-MUD!”
The protector gave the mirror a smack and said, “come on now, that’s no way to behave in front of our guest. And that entry you gave us is too negative – give us a better one, please!”
The mirror clouded over for a second, and then the words appeared, “WHY SHOULD I?”
“Because if you don’t,” said the protector angrily, “I’ll put you in the darkest corner I’ve got and only ask you for an entry once or twice a year!”
A billow of angry black fog filled the mirror, but then came the words, “OH, ALL RIGHT!” Then slowly a new entry appeared, with the same picture as before. It read as follows:
Uth Stone: One of the most marvelous finds of the modern era, the Uth Stone appears to have unique powers which enable its possessor to accomplish amazing things. The stone originates from the planet Uth (see picture) which so far has defied exploration due to an unusual protective shield surrounding it. However, according to ancient legend, individuals who are pure in heart are able to reach the surface and remove one of the powerful Uth rocks. There have been only three known instances in modern recorded history where such rocks have been observed, but unfortunately in each case the rock was lost before the nature of its powers could be fully ascertained. The three cases are: on the planet Mulara, an individual by the name of Amar Mul used the mysterious powers of the Uth stone to conquer the invading Methes and free his planet from slavery; on the planet Zo, a tribe of Nrefs used the stone to overcome the deadly flying Nubats who could kill with a single touch; and on the planet Garon, a young Lemian used the stone to heal his race from a plague of Triots that had been brought to the planet by trade ships. Unfortunately however, the stone was lost in the process of each use, and the one using it also mysteriously disappeared soon thereafter. See also Uth, planet of.
“That’s much better, thank you,” said the protector, giving the View-All a gentle pat. “I knew you could do it.” A cloud of pink, embarrassed smoke appeared on the View-All.
To George, the protector said, “Well, that entry sounded a bit more positive, didn’t it? In every one of those cases the Uth stone was used to help someone, rather than to hurt or destroy. We can look at the details later, if you want to know more about the Methes and Nubats and Triots. But I guess what we need to figure out now is what is going to cause fire and ice around here, and then figure out how your Uth rock can help.”
“I suppose so,” said George quietly, who was still feeling a bit unnerved by what he had read on the View All—and especially the mysterious disappearance of those who used it.
“I don’t suppose you have any idea who or what is threatening your planet?” asked the Protector.
“Well,” said George slowly, “something happened the other night that might help.” He then described the night the rock had helped him see out into space and the evil dog-like creature he had seen, with his father standing in the background.
“Hmm…” mumbled the Protector while rubbing his flabby chin. “That gives me a strong suspicion of who might be behind the threat to earth. Come over here to the Snorkfinder and we’ll see if you can show me the creature you saw.”
“The snorkfinder?” asked George as he followed the protector across the room to what looked like an empty glass box.
The protector laughed with a sound like sandpaper on ice. “You’ll have to excuse the slang. A ‘snork’ is just a common term for any unknown creature or being that exists in the galaxy. This little box is officially known as the ‘Intergalactic Index to Creatures Who Breath, Photosynthesize, Absorb, Leach, Parasite, or otherwise show evidence of Being Alive’—but it’s a lot easier to just call it the ‘snorkfinder.’”
The protector sat down on a little mushroom shaped stool in front of the snorkfinder. He touched the center of the glass front and immediately it started to glow, first pink, then blue, and then white.
“We could do this on the View All too, but as you’ve seen it’s been a little temperamental lately.”
In the center of the snorkfinder the words appeared “Description of Creature Please?”
“Go ahead,” said the Protector to George. “Describe it the best you can remember.”
“Well,” started George, a bit self conscious at talking to a machine, “it was very evil looking—“
Instantly across the screen came the words, “there are 23,467,952,152 evil looking species. Please be more specific.”
“—and,” continued George, “it had a hairy, dog-like face—“
The words now appeared, “There are only 1,197 evil looking species with hairy, dog-like faces, so you’re getting closer.”
“And its eyes were strange, so it was hard to look away once you looked into them,” said George.
The message on the screen changed to read, “There are only 15 evil looking dog-like species with hypnotic eyes—please choose from the following.” Then a series of pictures appeared on the screen, each one lasting about 1 or 2 seconds before it would change to a new one. George looked intently at each one. They all looked hairy and dog-like, and had a very unkind look in their eyes.
“Gosh, I’m not sure,” he said to the protector as the fifth one flashed onto the screen. “They all look so similar. It could have been any of them.”
“Well, there are little differences,” said the protector. “I’ll bet you recognize it when you see it.”
By now more than 10 had flashed on and off the screen. But when the 12th one appeared, the hair on the back of George’s neck stood on end. It looked exactly like the one he had seen that night!
“That’s it!” he said intently. “That’s what I saw.” He shuddered, then looked away. He could feel evil from it even though it was just a picture.
“I thought so,” said the protector with a grim smile. “That is a picture of a Grak, which is one of the most feared and most powerful races of creatures in this galaxy. I’m not surprised you saw one of them nearby. They’ve been causing some trouble lately.”
“Trouble?” asked George curiously, with a sinking feeling in his stomach.
“They’re always causing trouble,” said the Protector. “I see it all the time on the 6:00 o’clock news. Come here and I’ll show you.” He then walked over and flopped onto the couch (the claws immediately started scratching him again) and said to the empty air in front of him, “last night’s six o’clock news, please—the segment on the Grak.”
Instantly an image appeared in the air in front of the protector. It was a three dimensional view of a three-headed newscaster, who was giving all of the current events across the galaxy. The image looked so real that George had a hard time believing it was a broadcast of a creature millions of light years away. He couldn’t see where the image was coming from.
“…Boof Spinet, the intergalactic singing star,”one of the three heads stated in a surprisingly high pitched voice, “was found last night on the garbage planet of Moogbruth, nearly suffocated under a pile of manuremog. Authorities are still questioning Spinet as to how he came to be on the planet, although some observers speculate he went there to get some inspiration for a new song.
“—and in other news,” said one of the other three heads of the newscaster, “the Grak envoy to the supreme parliament got into a brawl on the floor of the parliament chamber with the representative of the Noovian system. The argument was apparently over trade issues, and allegations by the Noovians that the Grak have seized control of three of their trade planets. This is the third fight by a Grak on the floor of parliament this year…”
During this report the three dimensional picture in the air had changed to show a Grak fighting a pencil thin purple creature with 4 noses (all of which were bloody).
“Disgusting,” said the protector with a snort. “That’s enough news, thank you.” The image in the air faded and disappeared.
“Graks are always fighting and causing trouble,” said the protector. “They really shouldn’t even let them into parliament, but I guess they figured that was better than going to war with them. They’re quite a powerful race, you know.”
Before George could reply, his cell phone rang. The protector jumped off the couch as if he’d been shot by a rocket. “Gorzubee!” he cried, looking around wildly. “I know the sound of every gadget in here, and that’s not one of them! What was that?”
George laughed as the phone rang again. “It’s just my cell phone. My mom is calling. She calls all the time since my Dad disappeared.”
The protector grinned sheepishly. “I knew that,” he said flimsily. “It sounded like a cell phone.”
George punched the button on the phone to talk to his mother.
“George?” she sounded worried. “You said you’d be back in an hour, and you’re not here! Where are you?”
“Sorry Mom,” George replied. “I’m still at the park. I met this, uh, bird, and I lost track of time.”
“A bird?” she cried. “Well look, young man, you’d better be here in 15 minutes or you’ll be grounded for a week! O.k?”
“O.k.” said George weakly. “Sorry. I’ll be right there.”
Clicking off the phone, George turned to the protector. “I’ve got to go now or I’ll be in big trouble. But there’s still so much I wanted to ask!”
“Can you meet tomorrow morning?” asked the protector.
“Probably,” replied George, “if I get home real fast right now.” He turned to go. “Will I really get bigger when I go through the door?”
“Yep,” replied the protector. “I set it to downsize when you come through the passenger car window, and upsize as soon as you take a few steps past the door. So watch your head or you’ll end up jammed under the seat of the car.”
George opened the door and looked out at the mountainous kernels of popcorn strewn across the floor of the car beneath the passenger seat.
“Sorry about the popcorn mess,” said the protector in embarrassment. “Martin really likes popcorn, but he’s not too careful when he eats it.”
“Martin?” asked George.
“He’s my driver,” replied the protector. “I don’t like driving in this new, modern traffic, so I got Michael to do it for me. He’s outside on the park bench. You probably saw him.”
“I did?” said George blankly. Everything before he came into the protector’s car now seemed so long ago. Then he remembered the man he had seen sleeping on the park bench opposite the car. “Oh, yeah, I remember now,” he said. “Does he live in here too? He seemed awful big.” George felt comfortable with the protector, but wasn’t sure he liked the thought of a strange man hanging around next time he came to visit.
“He does,” replied the protector, “and he takes up hardly any space at all. But I’ll explain tomorrow – you’ve got to get going or your mother won’t let you meet tomorrow!” Then the protector gave George a little push through the door.
As George stumbled forward he watched in amazement as a popcorn kernel the size of a boulder seemed to shrink and fade away from him. At the same time, his head smacked against the bottom of the seat. Twisting around George found himself suddenly at his regular size, jammed between the seat and the inside front of the car. Hearing a muffled sound, he looked down at his foot. He could barely hear the protector’s tiny voice yelling, “GET YOUR FOOT OFF THE DOOR!”
George quickly moved his foot, and saw the protector, the size of a tiny toy soldier, standing just inside it. He yelled up at George, “You nearly broke the door with your foot when you expanded.”
“Sorry,” said George. The protector covered his ears. “Not so loud,” he yelled up at George. “You have to whisper when you talk to someone my size, or you’ll deafen them.”
“Sorry,” whispered George again.
“I’ll see you tomorrow morning in front of your house,” the protector yelled. “You’d better go home fast, or you won’t make it!”
George stared stupidly at him for a moment, still fascinated at how tiny he looked, and how the little door looked like it belonged on a doll house.
“Get going!” yelled the protector up at him again. Suddenly remembering his mother’s threats, George twisted around, hopped out the window and ran for home as fast as he could go.
George’s mind was so completely filled with his meeting with the protector that for the rest of the day he was hardly aware of what he was doing. His mother got after him three times that evening for not paying enough attention to what was going on around him. The last of these was when she asked him to feed the cat and help with dinner, and he put a bowl of cat food on the table and filled Door Jam’s bowl with string beans.
“George,” said his mother in exasperation after pouring the string beans into the disposal, “just what were you doing at the park today that’s made you so preoccupied?”
“Nothing,” said George quickly, trying to sound as innocent as possible. “There was just this yellow bird hopping around, and I was following him.”
George’s mother looked at him shrewdly. “You mean like the yellow bird that was following you a few months ago?”
George squirmed. “I guess so,” he said quietly. His mother continued to stare at him. Sometimes it seemed that she could look right into his head and read his mind. Finally she said, “Well, I don’t trust little yellow birds. Your father was also seeing strange things before he disappeared. So from now on if you see a yellow bird, stay away from it!”
“O.k., Mom,” said George meekly. He could tell she was suspicious. She could smell something unusual 100 yards off. Through the rest of the evening he tried to pay attention to what he was doing, since he didn’t want to risk her not letting him go out to meet the protector tomorrow.
But for the rest of the evening, George’s mind kept going over and over his meeting with the Protector and what he had learned. He slept fitfully that night, drifting in and out of dreams about shrinking Volkswagens, grumpy mirrors hanging in mid air, and pink fuzz balls rolling across his foot and across his face.
Finally morning came. George was so anxious to meet the protector that he brushed his teeth with a tube of hand lotion and poured milk on his toast at breakfast. (Fortunately his mother was out of the room at the time, and he cleaned up the mess before she came back). Finally, after he had gulped down his breakfast, he headed for the front door.
“And just where do you think you’re going?” his mother asked, appearing out of nowhere.
“Just out front,” replied George, trying to sound as casual as possible. “Maybe I’ll just climb the tree or poke around in the bushes for awhile.”
George’s mother gave him a hard look. “Well, make sure you don’t leave the front yard. And take your cell phone with you.”
“But Mom,” cried George, “I’m just going to the front yard. Why do I need my cell phone?”
“Suppose someone kidnaps you?” his mother responded. “If your father would have had a cell phone with him, we might know where he is right now.”
“Oh, all right,” said George grumpily, hooking his cell phone onto his belt. Then he went out into the front yard. The protector’s Volkswagen was nowhere to be seen. In fact, the street was deserted except for a fluffy, grey dog coming down the sidewalk, sniffing at everything it came across.
Disappointed, George scuffed his shoe on the sidewalk and settled down to wait. He looked up and down the street again. He still saw nothing, other than the dog, which was getting closer. George looked at the sky. It promised to be a clear, cloudless day.
Then a horrible thought struck George. He hadn’t told the protector where he lived! No wonder the Volkswagen was nowhere in sight!
In frustration, George sat down hard on the sidewalk step. He could have kicked himself for being so stupid. What was he going to do now? The protector apparently lived in his car, and that car could be anywhere. How were they going to find each other again?
George drummed his fingers grumpily on his knee, thinking hard. But no matter how he looked at it, he couldn’t think of anything to do except to try and talk his Mom into letting him go back to the park, to see if the protector’s car was there.
George stood up and turned to go back into the house. As he did so, he nearly tripped over the little grey dog that he had seen earlier. It wagged its tail and looked up at him happily.
“Sorry, I can’t play now,” said George to the dog. “I’m in a hurry.” George hopped over the dog and started for his house.
“What’s the rush?” said a voice behind him.
In shock, George tripped over his own feet and sprawled on the lawn. He looked back but there was no one there, other than the little dog.
He stared at the dog for a moment. It stared back, wagging its tail eagerly. Finally, George said, “are you the protector?”
“In the fur,” replied the dog. “It’s ‘dog Tuesday.’ Every Tuesday I like to go out as a dog. There’s always so many interesting things to smell and cats to chase.”
“How do you do that?” asked George, coming over to the dog. “Talk, I mean. I can hardly see your lips move!”
“It’s not too hard,” replied the dog simply. “The transformer may change my shape, but I can still talk like normal. I didn’t talk to you yesterday when I was a bird because I didn’t want to scare you.”
“Wow!” said George. “You look so real!” He reached his hand out to pet the dog’s head—then quickly pulled it back. “Sorry,” he said, embarrassed. “I was thinking you were a real dog, rather than the protector.”
“Oh, that’s o.k.” replied the protector. “Right now I feel like a dog. The transformer does a very complete job of things. When I’m like this I even enjoy dog food, which I normally would never eat.”
“Wow,” said George again, reaching out to pet the protector and scratch behind his ears and under his chin.
“Oooh, that feels good!” said the protector as George scritch-scratched his neck. “Don’t stop!” The protector’s hind leg started to thump up and down, as dogs often do when being scratched.
There was suddenly a bang from the front door behind them. “George!” came his mother’s voice. “What are you doing?”
George turned to face her. “It’s just a dog, Mom.”
“Tell her I’m lost,” whispered the protector.
“I think he’s lost,” said George.
“Well, I don’t know if you should be petting him,” George’s mother said doubtfully. “He looks kind of scroungy and dirty to me.”
“Hmph!” said the protector grumpily. “I took a shower this morning!” Then he added, “ask if you can take me down the street to see who I belong to – that will give us a chance to go to the fallen star.”
“O.k.” whispered George back to the protector.
“Are you talking to the dog?” George’s mom asked curiously.
George coughed in embarrassment. “Uh, yeah, I am. I was just telling it I could take it down the street and ask who it belonged to.”
George’s mother scowled, pursing her lips. But George and the dog were looking at her so eagerly that she finally threw up her hands and said, “O.k! All right, go ahead! But be back in an hour!”
“Thanks, Mom,” George said happily as he and the protector bolted off down the street.
“That was a great idea,” said George to the protector as they ran.
“Well, we needed to get away from her so we could go out to the fallen star where you found the Uth stone,” said the protector, panting. “Martin has the car parked just around the corner, so we can drive right out there.”
The protector suddenly put on a burst of speed and George had to stretch just to keep up with him.
As George rounded the corner, he saw the protector’s Volkswagen parked a short distance up the street. The big man George had seen on the park bench the day before was sitting in the driver’s seat, staring straight ahead. George slowed down and approached the car cautiously. The protector leaped through the passenger window and stood on the passenger seat with his paws on the dashboard.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, seeing George’s hesitation as he came slowly up to the car.
“Martin,” said George quietly. “I don’t think my mom would want me to go with him.”
The protector laughed. “That’s very logical and you’re right, you should never go in a car with strangers. But you have nothing to worry about. Martin is an ant.”
George stared blankly at the protector. “An ant?” he said dumbly.
“That’s right,” replied the protector. “Ant #4, to be exact. Have you ever noticed how ants always seem to know where they’re going, and can always find any little speck of food or crumb on the ground? And how they can work their way through hordes of other ants without getting confused?”
“Yeah,” said George slowly, wondering what the protector was talking about.
“Well,” continued the protector, “I figured if ants have that good of a sense of direction and that much ability to handle traffic jams, they should be pretty good as drivers! So I used the transformer to change an ant into a human to become my driver.”
“Wow!” said George, looking at Martin in amazement. “So, he’s an ant!”
“That’s right,” said the protector. “Actually, he’s ant number four. Ants don’t live very long, you know, so I’ve had to replace my driver four times.”
“Replace him?” said George uncomfortably.
“Yep,” replied the protector. “Each ant’s human form aged very quickly so I could tell when he was getting close to the end. Then I would just change him back into an ant and get a new driver. It was hard saying good-bye to my old drivers, of course, since I got rather attached to them.”
“That’s terrible,” said George without thinking.
“I agree,” said the protector. “It’s a shame ants have such short lives, and that no one seems to care when they die. Where I come from, every form of life is greatly respected. But I’ve found that most people on this planet don’t feel that way. Whoever cares if an ant lives or dies? Whoever cares if they step on an ant?”
“Well, I guess that’s true,” said George, feeling confused. He found himself wondering how many times he had stepped on ants without paying any attention. “But people would care if the ant looked like a human.”
“Probably so,” replied the protector. “But it would still be an ant.”
Still confused, George slowly got into the Volkswagen, and sat down on the back seat.
“So, where are we going?” asked the protector. “Where is the fallen star?”
“Just outside town, right past the orchard,” said George slowly.
Immediately Martin started the car and began driving towards the outskirts of town.
“He understood me?” asked George in surprise.
“Yep,” replied the protector. “I don’t know why, but the ants I’ve transformed understand everything I say. Maybe when they go through the transformer they take on some human attributes. But they never talk. Martin has never said a single word to me.”
“He hasn’t?” asked George, turning to stare at Martin again.
“Have you ever heard an ant talk?” replied the protector.
“No,” said George. There was silence for a moment while Martin drove silently on.
“What I’m going to be looking for at the fallen star is just any clue we can find,” said the protector, changing the subject. “I don’t actually know what it might be – it could be anything. Hopefully we’ll find something that helps.”
“We’re getting close,” said George, looking out the window. “It’s right over there, past the end of the orchard.”
Martin brought the car to a stop at the specified place and George and the protector got out. “It’s just over that rise, out of sight.” The protector trotted ahead with George following close behind.
The site was the same as when George had been there last. The circular fallen star lay half submerged in the earth where it had landed, with the hook-like appendage pointing up to the north. There was nothing else around at all. George felt a twinge of guilt at being here again. His mother had not wanted him to come back here. But he had only promised to not come here alone, and since the protector was with him, it was easy to rationalize that he had not broken his promise.
The protector looked closely at the fallen star and tapped it with his paw.
“It’s not a meteor or an asteroid. It looks like it was made by somebody, and I would guess it’s not here by accident. I would think that hook-like part pointing up has a definite purpose, although I can’t imagine what it would be.”
“Really?” replied George. “I thought this was just something that fell randomly from space.”
“I doubt it,” said the protector. “It looks almost like it’s positioned for something.” He paused. “Where did you find the Uth rock?”
George pointed out the spot in the grass near the fallen star, and the protector went over to it. “This is another reason why I decided to be a dog today. Their sniffers are much better than those of a human.” He then sniffed all around the grassy area George had pointed out, and looked carefully through the grass. But he found nothing.
“It can’t be a coincidence that the Uth stone was right here with the fallen star,” muttered the protector. “The two must have come together. But why?” After looking around for another minute, the protector said to George, “there’s a camera on the front seat of the car. Can you get it? I need to take some pictures so we can analyze them.”
George quickly went back to the car and retrieved the camera. Unlike the protector’s other gadgets it looked perfectly normal.
“I bought it at Wal-Mart,” said the protector sheepishly when George brought it back, and he noticed George looking at it curiously. “Your earth cameras work pretty well.”
The protector then had George take several pictures of the fallen star from different angles. When they were finished, the two walked slowly back to the car. Ant number 4 was still sitting in the driver’s seat, staring straight ahead with a vacant expression on his face.
“Take us back to the street we started from,” instructed the protector after he and George had got into the car. As the car began to move forward, the protector said to George, “as you recall, yesterday I had my settings arranged so that you would shrink when you came in the window—“
“Yeah, that’s right,” said George, remembering.
“Today, I’ve got it set to shrink only when you actually touch the little door into my home,” said the protector. “Watch.” He reached out a paw and bumped it against the tiny door. Instantly he shrank to about an inch in height. It was as if George were watching him through a zoom lens working in reverse. The protector was still a dog though, who now looked like a toy.
“Wow!” he said in amazement.
The protector’s tiny voice reached up to him. “Remember to whisper so you don’t deafen me. Now it’s your turn. Come here and touch the door, but be careful you don’t crush me in the process. Then we’ll go inside and look at the pictures.”
George moved to the front seat and cautiously stretched out his finger toward the door.
George felt tense and nervous, since he knew what was about to happen. The instant he touched the door he felt like his tongue was being sucked right down into his stomach. Everything around him seemed to be growing at fantastic speed. Then he found himself on his hands and knees looking up at the door which had been so tiny only a second ago.
“Wow!” said George, shaking a little as he dizzily stood up. “That is so weird.”
“Kind of fun, isn’t it?” replied the protector. “You’ll get used to it.” Then he trotted through the door. George followed and watched in amazement as the protector instantly changed from a dog back to his former flabby-skinned self the instant he went through the door.
“Come on in and let’s do a search on these pictures,” said the protector, taking the camera (which had also shrunk) from George. They went over to what looked like a simple printer, such as the one his mother had for her camera at home.
“I got this printer at Wal-Mart too,” said the protector with an embarrassed smile at George. “Not all of my gadgets are fancy, high tech things from outer space.”
The protector connected a cord to the camera and quickly printed off the pictures they had taken at the fallen star. Then he led George over to a plain glass screen with a slot below it, right next to the snorkfinder they had used the day before.
“This is the news finder,” said the protector. “It’s kind of old fashioned, but it still works quite well. All you do is put a picture or a request into the slot and it will search all of the newspapers on every planet in the known universe and show whatever it matches.”
“You mean other planets have newspapers?” asked George in surprise.
“You bet,” replied the protector. “Although most of them are never actually printed on paper. They usually come over the viewscreen. Anyway, let’s put in a picture of the fallen star and see what we get.”
The protector popped a picture into the slot. A humming noise immediately started from the news finder. The protector turned to George and said in embarrassment, “like I said, it’s a bit old fashioned. I really should replace it. Sometimes it takes a whole 15 seconds to do a universe search of billions of newspapers, and give a result. Terribly slow, you know.”
A voice suddenly came out of the machine, startling George. Mechanically it said, “there is only one matching result out of 10,487,501,908,432 news sources. There are 90,586,273 similar objects that are not quite a perfect match. Would you like to see all of them?” The voice sounded anxious, as if begging to show them all of its matches.
“No thanks,” said the protector. There was a sigh of disappointment from the news finder. “That’s pretty incredible, though,” the protector said to George. “Only one exactly matching result in the entire universe! Usually there’s at least 20 exact matches for about everything I ever search for. I even searched for an Australian platypus once just for fun, and found 34 exact matches across the universe!”
The protector touched the upper right hand corner of the screen. “The upper right hand corner is exact matches, and the upper left is similar objects,” he explained.
A picture and text appeared on the screen. The picture showed an object that looked so much like his fallen star that George had a hard time believing it was not the same one. The text was unreadable, but looked familiar somehow.
“Gorzubee!” cried the protector. “This newspaper picture is from right here on earth! It’s from a newspaper in China! Out of millions of worlds across the galaxy, that was the only match!”
“China?” said George in surprise.
“That’s right,” said the protector. “Here, let’s get a translation so we can read what it says.” He touched the lower right corner of the screen. Instantly the text changed to English, and George read the following:
“In the early morning of July 7, residents of Xhengxou were startled out of their sleep by a falling star which crashed into the ground on the outskirts of the city. Authorities have closely examined the meteorite and determined that it is not radioactive or dangerous. It consists of a metallic-like substance with an extension pointing in a northward direction. Authorities estimate that the meteorite was several times larger than it now is before it tumbled to earth, but most of its mass burned off due to the intense heat of entering the earth’s atmosphere. Officials from the army are guarding the meteorite until it can be safely transported to the National Museum. Meanwhile, many residents near where the meteorite landed have relocated out of an unfounded fear that others may fall nearby.”
“Well, isn’t that interesting?” said the protector, rubbing his flabby chin. “This report is both right and wrong in what it says about the object burning off a lot of its mass upon entering the earth’s atmosphere. Normally that is the case, but my examination of your fallen star led me to believe that very little if any of its surface burned off during entry. It seems to be made of an extremely high grade metal, similar to NASA spacecraft, that doesn’t melt off with heat. I’d bet the Chinese authorities know that, but didn’t want it repeated in the newspaper, since that would arouse greater suspicion. That’s why they’re calling it a meteorite, when it’s really not.”
“Why would they be worried about that?” asked George curiously.
“They probably don’t want to admit that it appears to be made by someone or something, which would indicate life outside your planet,” the protector replied. “That could create widespread anxiety and draw more attention to it than they want, at least until they know more about what the thing is and how to protect their people from whoever is out there. The Chinese government is far more secretive than your own. It’s surprising they revealed even this much information about the fallen star.”
“But why would the exact same fallen star come down in China?” asked George. “And almost at the same time, too. The one fell here on July 6th.”
“Which was the 7th in China, since it is across the international dateline,” said the protector. “It appears they fell at the same time. But why they fell, and what they are doing here is a great mystery.” The protector squinted his eyes in concentration. “Two things are certain,” he said after a moment. “First, it isn’t a mere coincidence that these two identical objects landed on earth at the same time. Second, given what you saw the other night and what I know about the Grak, I would say the Grak are the ones who sent them down here for some devious purpose of their own.”
Suddenly George felt something prickly on the back of his neck. He jumped and turned around, but it was only Emberly who had rolled over from the couch, then bounced up to his neck.
“Hi, there,” he said, picking her up. “How are you doing today?”
Emberly got so excited that she bounced from one of George’s hands to the other, and then up on his head. George laughed and reached up to pull her off, but she bounced away and then up to the top of the fridge.
“I told you she liked you,” said the protector. “I just wish she could get along as well when she’s a girl,” he said with a sigh.
“What?” said George uncomprehendingly.
“Like I said before, she was sent to me so I could find her a new home here on earth, since there are no more of her kind,” said the protector. “She’s highly intelligent so I hesitate to turn her into an animal and let her lose. So I tried the other day to turn her into a human girl. I guess she didn’t like it though. She just about turned the supermarket we went to upside down!”
“You took her into a supermarket?” George asked in amazement. He stared at the pink fuzz ball for a minute, trying in vain to imagine it transformed into a girl who went crazy in the aisles of food.
Suddenly George’s cell phone rang, causing the protector to jump and look around wildly. Then he grinned sheepishly. “Your cell phone,” he mumbled in embarrassment. “I knew that.”
George clicked the button on the phone.
“George, where are you?” came his mother’s worried voice.
The protector hurriedly whispered to George, “Ant number 4 brought us back to where we started, just around the corner from your street.”
“I’m just up the street,” said George.
“Well, it’s past time you were back,” said his mother. Then she added as an afterthought, “did you find the little dog’s home?”
“Yeah,” said George with a grin. “He’s home now.” The protector grinned too. “I’ll be right home, Mom.”
“Well, you’d better be,” she answered. “We’ve got to get ready for our trip, you know.”
“Our trip?” George repeated blankly.
“Yes, you remember, don’t you?” said his mother. “We’re going to Sacramento tomorrow to take the pickled peaches to your Aunt Agnes.”
“Oh, darn!” said George. “I forgot. Do I have to go?”
“Yes,” said his mother firmly. “We’ve been planning this trip for 3 weeks and she’s expecting all of us. Janet tried to get out of going too, and I wouldn’t let her.”
“Darn,” said George again.
“It’s not that bad,” said his mother. “Anyway, you’re going. And I expect you back home in 5 minutes!”
“O.k. Mom,” said George unhappily. He clicked off the cell phone. “Looks like I’ll be gone all day tomorrow,” he said grumpily.
“That’s too bad,” said the protector. “I was thinking we need to go to China tomorrow.”
“Go to China!” exclaimed George.
“Yep,” replied the protector. “We need to take a look at their fallen star. And most importantly, we need to see if anyone there found an Uth stone like yours. The newspaper didn’t mention anything about one.”
“That’s right!” cried George. “If everything else about it is the same, there should have been an Uth stone there too.”
“Well,” said the protector, “I just hope if there was one it’s not in the wrong hands, since it is so powerful. Anyway, you’d better get going. Just meet me in front of your house in the morning the day after tomorrow and we’ll go to China then.”
“Gosh, I sure wish I didn’t have to go to Aunt Agnes’ place tomorrow,” said George.
“It’s all right,” said the protector with a smile. “It’s only one day. And it will give me some time to do some testing on your fallen star, to try to find a clue about what it’s made of.”
George gave Emberly a final pat, then went to the door. He paused for a second, then turned and asked, “how are we going to talk to people or understand them in China? And how are we going to even get there?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” replied the protector. “But I’ll describe it all the day after tomorrow. Now go, before your Mom gets upset.”
“O.k.” said George reluctantly. There were still so many things he wanted to ask that he hated to leave. But he knew his mother well enough to know he had to get home fast.
“I’ll see you the day after tomorrow then,” he called as he ducked through the door.
“O.k.” came the protector’s reply. Then in a voice that seemed to fade into the distance like a rock being dropped into a well, George heard the protector say, “Watch your head!”
The instruction came too late. George’s head banged into something hard and he suddenly found himself sitting sideways, back to his full size, with his head stuck under the passenger seat of the Volkswagen.
George heard the protector’s tiny voice yelling, “don’t worry, you’ll get better at it. Now you’d better get going. I’ll see you in two days.”
George struggled out from under the seat, righted himself, and waved to the miniature protector standing in the door far below. Then he hopped out of the car and raced for home.
The next day all George could think about was fallen stars, the protector, China and Uth rocks. He was so preoccupied at breakfast his mother had to tell him three times to stop holding his dripping cereal spoon over his pants. She got after him again when he came out to the car to go to Aunt Agnes’ house with a cowboy boot on one foot and a tennis shoe on the other. George stared blankly out the window for the whole two hour drive to Aunt Agnes’ house, totally oblivious to the passing trees and countryside. Instead, he was seeing images of evil, slobbering Grak, refrigerator’s wearing sweaters, and ants driving Volkswagens.
After they arrived at Aunt Agnes’ house, George was so absorbed in his own thoughts that he actually ate a mouthful of pickled peaches his Aunt offered him before he realized what he was doing (naturally, he spit it out immediately).
All in all, the day seemed to creep by like a cat being dragged by his claws across the carpet. After an eternity of sitting on Aunt Agnes’ lumpy couch while she talked on and on and on, they finally drove home. When George finally went to bed that night, he was exhausted from having tried hard all day to force time to go faster. But at the same time, he was full of excitement to meet the protector and go to China in the morning.
The next morning George was out front as early as his mother would let him. She was actually glad this time to see him go, since he had been such a nuisance the day before at Aunt Agnes’ house, and he had kept making new messes for her to clean up all morning—such as when he poured salt in his milk, and put catsup on his cereal.
From the front of his house George looked up and down the street, but didn’t see anyone or any sign of the protector’s car. He smiled. Just because there was no person in sight didn’t mean the protector wasn’t there. The last time he had surprised George as a dog, and in the park he had been a bird. George looked in all directions for any type of small animal. He didn’t intend to be caught off guard this time.
The sun was shining and it promised to be a warm, beautiful day. There was a gentle breeze and several butterflies were fluttering in the air. George couldn’t see any dogs along the street, or any cats either (other than DoorJam, who was snoozing on the front porch). Although he could hear some birds singing nearby, George couldn’t actually see any birds either.
George settled himself down to wait. He had just plopped down cross-legged on the grass when he heard a voice in his ear.
“So, are you ready to go to China?” it asked.
George stumbled to his feet and turned swiftly around, but there was no one there.
“Whoa, there!” said the voice again. “Settle down! You nearly crushed me!”
George looked around wildly. There was still nothing in sight other than a butterfly fluttering gently through the air near his head.
George did a double take. The butterfly! Of course! George looked at it intently. It didn’t look anything like the protector. George couldn’t tell if it even had a mouth to talk with.
“Yep,” came the voice again. “Today I’m a butterfly. It’s actually kind of pleasant for those days you just want to float around on the breeze, light as a feather. But it can be dangerous if a strong wind comes along – or if you get too close to a human who thinks you’re a potato chip, or who jumps around and flails his arms like you just did!”
“Sorry about that,” said George. “I wasn’t expecting you to be a butterfly. I’ll try to be more careful.”
“So,” said the protector again, “are you ready to go to China?”
“You bet!” exclaimed George.
“Well, ant number 4 has the car parked right around the corner,” said the protector, “so let’s get going.” The butterfly headed off for the corner at a surprisingly fast pace, with George trotting along to keep up with it.
When they reached the car, Ant number 4 was seated in the driver’s seat staring straight ahead as usual. The butterfly flew through the open passenger seat window and down to the little door. As George opened the car door to get in, he heard a tiny voice floating up to him. “No need to come down here and shrink. Just take a seat in the back. Ant number 4 knows where to go. I’m just going to make a quick change and will be right out.” George then saw the butterfly flutter through the tiny door.
George sat down in the back seat, and ant number 4 started the car and began driving. George still couldn’t imagine how they could travel halfway around the world to China in this little car, but he had already seen the protector do so many amazing things that he no longer doubted they would do it somehow.
Ant number 4 took the car into the country, past the orchard and then to the field where the fallen star was located. The car came to a stop. George heard the protector’s tiny voice say, “We need to start from a secluded spot, and this place is as good as any. I’ll be right up and set up the portable transporter.”
George remained in the back seat, waiting. Ant number 4 stayed exactly where he was, staring blankly ahead into space. Suddenly there appeared on the passenger seat a stubby little man with his shirt tail hanging out and an unshaven growth of stubble on his face. As the man opened the door and got out of the car, George was surprised to see that he was even shorter than George himself.
“I assumed the shape of a man just in case anyone happens to come by,” said the protector. He then reached back into the car and pulled out some thin poles and some flouncy, gauzy material that seemed to shimmer and shift colors in the protector’s hands. He carried these a short distance from the car, set most of them down on the grass, and then began working on the poles. George left the car and came up to watch.
“This is the portable transporter,” said the protector, grunting as he jabbed one of the poles into the ground. “It takes about 10 minutes to set it up. It’s kind of like putting up a tent.”
The protector worked swiftly with deft movements, and George watched in fascination as the outlines of what looked like a door appeared before his eyes. It was about 6 feet high and was in the shape of an arch, with enough room underneath for the protector’s car to pass through. Stretched across the poles that formed the frame of the door were the gauzy strands of some strange material that seemed to be constantly changing color. George remembered seeing a smaller version of this type of door in the Protector’s home inside the Volkswagen.
In a few minutes the door was completed. The protector then attached a small black box to the bottom of one side of the door. It had buttons on it similar to a keypad, or the face of a cell phone.
“Now, I just need to make a few settings on the controller here, and then we’ll be ready to go.” He started pushing some of the buttons.
“So, we’re going to drive through that door and it will take us to China?” asked George.
“That’s right,” said the protector. “Only we’d look pretty conspicuous in China the way we are right now. So I’m setting the gauge here to not only transport us, but transform us as well—even Emberly. She needs to get out in the world of humans more often, so I thought she’d come with us today.”
“We’re going to be transformed?” George asked uneasily. He wasn’t sure he was ready to be a butterfly. “How? I mean, what’s wrong with the way we are right now?”
“Well,” the protector responded slowly, “in China you’ll be about 6 inches taller than most boys your age, and you look very American. You’ll stick out like a sore thumb. We want to be inconspicuous and not draw attention to ourselves so we can move about freely.”
George was about to respond when he was suddenly hit from behind between the shoulder blades so hard that he went flying. He looked up dizzily to see a blond haired girl with freckles looking down at him, a big, gawky smile on her face. With alarm, George saw that she looked like she was about to jump on top of him, feet first.
“Emberly!” said the protector reprovingly. “It’s not polite to pounce on people when you’re in human shape. You’re a girl now, not a furball.” Emberly turned away with a sulky look on her face.
The protector helped George to his feet. “You’ll have to forgive Emberly,” he said quietly so she wouldn’t overhear. “Although she’s 130 Praetorian years old, she’s still just a child, and it’s not easy for her to adjust to being a member of a different race.”
George turned to see Emberly staring at him, a frown on her face. Suddenly she smiled, walked up to him, and jabbed a finger in his ear.
“Hey!” yelled George, jumping back. “What’re you doing?”
“You’ve got big ears,” Emberly giggled.
“Emberly, that’s not polite,” said the protector with a frown. Then he turned curiously to George. “Or is it o.k. on your planet to poke people in the ear, then tell them their ears are big? I’ve never quite been able to learn all of the strange customs you have here.”
“No, it’s not normal at all,” replied George.
“Why not?” she asked innocently. “It’s true, isn’t it?” Then she turned to look at the Protector. “You told me yesterday humans try to be honest, and he does have big ears.”
“Yes, you should always try to be honest,” said the protector patiently, “but that doesn’t mean you go around poking people in the ear and telling them things that are rude or upsetting. If you can’t say something positive, don’t say anything at all.”
Emberly scowled, deep in thought. Then suddenly she smiled again and looking up at George said, “I’ll bet you can hear really good with those big ears of yours! That was a positive thing to say, wasn’t it?”
The protector threw up his hands in exasperation, but George just laughed. “I can hear just fine,” he said to Emberly. “But my ears are about the same size as yours.”
A look of horror spread over Emberly’s face and she clapped her hands over her ears. “I’ve got big ears too!” she screamed, then ran over and tried to hide behind the Volkswagen.
The protector looked at George and shrugged. “Praetorians don’t have ears,” he said simply. Then he turned back to the control box on the transporter and made a few more adjustments.
“All right!” he cried out. “We’re ready to go to Xhenxou, China!” He rubbed his chin. “Or at least, that’s where I hope we end up, if I set it right. But no matter. Hop in, and let’s get going.”
With a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, George climbed into the back seat of the Volkswagen. Emberly crawled in next to him, still holding her hands over her ears, and avoiding his eyes. The protector sat in the passenger seat.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” he said, turning to face George and Emberly. “Have one of these.” He handed each of them a stick of chewing gum in a red wrapper. “It’s mandarin Chinese flavored chewing gum – good for 24 hours of fluent language as long as you keep chewing on it. Try it. It tastes like fried rice.”
George took the stick of red gum, and stared at it in fascination.
“What do I do with this one?” asked Emberly, forgetting her ears for the moment and pulling a wad of bluish gum out of her mouth.
“That’s English gum,” said the protector to George. “Emberly is still learning your language, so I thought I’d make it easy for her today. But we’ll all be chewing Chinese now, so it won’t be needed. Put it in here,” he said to Emberly, producing a small plastic garbage sack from somewhere.
“You mean, if I chew this, I’ll be able to speak Chinese?” George said in amazement.
“Yep,” replied the protector. “And understand it too, as long as the gum is in your mouth. But of course, you won’t notice anything different. It will seem to you as if you’re still hearing and talking English.”
“Really?” said George.
“Agubordif?” said Emberly.
“There, you see?” said the protector. “Emberly took her English gum out of her mouth and is now speaking Praetorian – at least until she starts chewing some of this—“and he handed her a stick of the red Chinese chewing gum.
Emberly ripped it open and jammed it into her mouth. She made several loud smacking noises as she started chewing. Then she rolled her eyes happily.
“She likes gum,” the protector said confidentially. Then he opened a stick of gum for himself and put it in his mouth, pointing for George to do the same. As George started chewing, he was amazed that it really did taste exactly like fried rice.
“Now,” said the protector, “it probably doesn’t sound like I’m talking to you in Chinese, does it?”
“No,” replied George in disappointment.
“But I am,” said the protector with a smile. “Take the gum out for a second and you’ll see.”
George took the gum out of his mouth and heard the protector say something unintelligible that sounded like it was Chinese.
“Wow!” he said, putting the gum back in.
“Pretty handy, eh?” said the protector. “I’ve got gum for most languages.” Then he added confidentially, “You should try Italian. It tastes just like pizza.”
“And now, on to China!” cried the protector. Ant number 4 started the car, and started to inch forward toward the transporter door.
“Will it hurt to go through the transporter?” asked George with mounting apprehension as he watched the door draw nearer.
“Not at all,” replied the protector with a laugh. “It’s just like driving through a tunnel. You won’t feel a thing.”
“Where will we end up?” asked George curiously. “Is there a transporter in China too?”
“I entered the coordinates into the controller – it will find a secluded spot where no one will see and will automatically create a transporter opening for us to come in at. Both the opening there and the door here will be cloaked and made invisible as soon as we go through so no one will see them if they happen to chance by. They’ll stay that way until we’re ready to come back.”
Before George could say anything else they were going through the transporter. Rainbows of color danced in patches before his eyes, and washed across the faces of the protector, Ant number 4 and Emberly. George’s skin tingled as if thousands of ants were crawling over him. And then everything went completely dark.
They were through the transporter door, and to George’s surprise, it was nighttime and very dark. There were only a few stars visible. George saw that they were in a small gully with bushes on either side, with not much else to be seen. However, the air was noisy with many car horns blowing nearby, so he knew they must be near a road.
“Everybody here honks their horn all the time, even when they don’t need to,” said the protector in a raised voice so he could be heard over the blaring horns. “There’s so many people and bikes all over that cars and buses have to honk to let people know they’re there, so no one gets run over.”
Slowly, Ant Number 4 pulled the car forward over the rise of the gully. George saw a large number of lights in the distance and some low buildings. There was a road nearby and George could see that there were indeed a large number of people on bikes, even in the dark, heading in both directions along the road, with a few honking cars and buses weaving slowly between them.
“Gosh,” said George, “I didn’t realize it would be dark here.”
“Yep,” the protector replied from the front seat. “It’s night here already, since China is nine hours behind California at this time of year. But they’re a day ahead since you have to cross the international dateline to get here. So I guess you could say that California is behind China in time, not the other way around.”
“If it’s so late, how come there are so many people out?” asked George.
“The Chinese generally take a little nap after lunch, which refreshes them to stay up late into the night,” said the protector. “You’ll find the whole city is far busier than an American city at this hour.”
Suddenly, Emberly pointed at George. “Your hair changed color and your eyes have changed. But you’ve still got big ears!”
George stared at Emberly in shock. While the dim light from the nearby buildings didn’t allow him to see much, he could tell that her blond curly hair was now black and straight, her freckles were gone and in every other way she looked like a Chinese girl!
“We are now Chinese,” said the protector calmly. “Even Ant Number 4.”
George saw that it was true. Both Ant Number 4 and the protector looked like Chinese men. Looking in the rear view mirror, George saw that his own appearance had changed dramatically. He also had black hair and looked very Chinese.
“Our car has changed too,” said the protector. “Volkswagen Bugs aren’t as common here as they used to be, so we are now riding in a more typical vehicle for China.”
Looking around at the interior of the car, George saw that the Volkswagen Bug had apparently been transformed into some type of yellow mini car or van with bench seats.
The protector smiled at George from the front seat. “I’ll bet even your own mother probably wouldn’t recognize you now,” he said calmly.
At the thought of his mother, George looked impulsively at his cell phone. It was still on, but George doubted it would work if she tried to call from half way around the world. It was fascinating to think that he had come so far from home in the blink of an eye.
“Will we be here long?” asked George. “Not that I want to leave,” he added hastily. “I’m just afraid my Mom might try to call, and she wouldn’t be able to reach me.”
“That is a problem,” agreed the protector. “But we shouldn’t be here long. I’m just going to take a few pictures and do a few quick tests on the fallen star, and then we’ll need to ask around a little to see if anyone found an Uth rock like yours.”
Turning to Ant Number 4, the protector said, “Head for those lights over there.” He pointed to what looked like several spotlights in a nearby field. “I’ll bet that’s where the fallen star is.”
As they approached the field with spotlights, George could see street venders pulling carts of food or clothing, and a large number of people on foot or riding bicycles. All of them had black hair and dark eyes. George could now see why the protector had set the gauge to transform them all, so they wouldn’t stand out.
At the brightly lit field, they saw a large number of men in army uniforms carrying rifles. They were patrolling along a rope fence that had been set up along the edge of the field. A few curious spectators stood outside the rope, staring at the fallen star in the center of the field. It looked exactly like the one George had found. Two officials were examining it, with several armed guards standing behind them.
“Drat,” murmured the protector. “I should have known it would be heavily guarded here. I’m afraid we won’t be able to get very close to it. A few pictures from the outside of the rope fence will have to be good enough. But it looks just like yours, which I’ve been able to test and examine.”
“But what about the Uth rock?” asked George. “Does the army have it?”
“I don’t know,” said the protector. “If they do, they wouldn’t tell us. Let’s just hope if they do have it, they don’t find out how powerful it is.”
Ant Number 4 parked the car a short distance from the roped field. As they got out, the protector said, “Stay on this side of the rope fence, and don’t do anything to make the guards suspicious. If there’s any trouble, let me do the talking.”
George saw that the protector had put on a pair of glasses, but hadn’t taken anything else with him out of the car.
“What about the camera?” asked George. “Weren’t you going to take some pictures?”
The protector smiled. Raising his hand, he tapped his glasses. “This is my camera,” he said quietly. “I have a feeling they wouldn’t approve of my trying to take pictures of it with my Walmart camera. The army here is very protective and suspicious.”
Ant Number 4 stayed in the car while George, Emberly and the protector walked over to the roped field.
George could feel the eyes of several guards on him as he approached, and tried to act as normal as possible. This was hard to do with his heart thumping so loudly in his chest. Emberly on the other hand skipped along as if going to a picnic, stopping to look at the cart of each street vender that was going by, and staring at each bike rider that passed.
George noticed that the protector seemed to spend a lot of time adjusting his glasses. The protector walked along the rope fence for a ways, getting a look at the fallen star from several different angles.
Looking back toward the car, George noticed a glow on the horizon that must be coming from the center of the city. The bikes and honking cars continued winding along the nearby road in a steady stream in spite of the lateness of the hour. Did people here ever go to bed?
Turning back to the field, George saw that the protector had gone all the way to the far corner of the roped field, where he continued to stare at the fallen star. Emberly was nearby, closely examining the contents of a street vender’s cart, which appeared to be full of eggplants. She picked one up, turning it over in her hands. The street vender looked at her expectantly, probably thinking that she intended to buy it. With sudden apprehension over what Emberly might do, George hurried forward.
He was too late. Without warning, Emberly took a huge bite of the eggplant. Almost immediately she screwed up her face in disgust and spit it out on the shirt of the shocked street vender.
“Your purple rock tastes terrible!” she cried. Before any of the startled onlookers could do anything, she pushed the cart over and egg plants scattered in all directions. George stumbled on one and nearly fell as he rushed forward.
“Thief! Troublemaker! Brat!” cried the street vender as he danced angrily around Emberly. “You’ll pay for this! You’ll pay for all of my egg plants!”
“Here, what’s the trouble?” said a guard, pushing his way forward.
“This child pushed over my cart of egg plants!” cried the street vender.
“Those aren’t eggs!” screamed Emberly. “Eggs are white and taste good, but those purple rocks are awful!”
The guard took a menacing step toward Emberly, a dark look on his face. A sizable crowd seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, surrounding Emberly, the street vender and the guard. George stood paralyzed at the edge of the crowd, not knowing what to do.
Suddenly the protector appeared, shoving his way in front of Emberly to face the guard.
“I apologize for the rude actions of my niece,” he said hastily. “I will pay for any damaged egg plants, I assure you.”
Emberly stood fuming behind the protector, but didn’t say anything. The guard hesitated. The street vender had quieted down for the moment, on hearing that he would be paid for his produce. In fact, he had broken into a big grin at the prospect of selling more egg plants at once than he probably ever had in one night.
“Emberly,” said the protector over his shoulder, while not taking his eyes off the guard, “please tell the nice gentleman you’re sorry, then go over to the car with George.”
Emberly looked sullenly down at her feet for a moment. She scuffed her toe at a nearby egg plant, cracking it open. Finally she said in a muffled voice, “I’m sorry.” Then she flashed everyone an unexpected smile and ran over next to George.
By this time several more guards had joined the first one. The protector quickly produced a wallet from an inner pocket and started pulling out colored bills of Yuen, Chinese currency. George wondered how the protector had known to bring any.
The street vender smiled happily and held out his hands, ecstatic to be earning more money off the protector than he would have earned in a day on the streets with his cart.
After passing out enough bills to make the street vender smile in glee, the protector slipped a bill to each of the guards. Then he signaled George and Emberly to follow him and headed quickly for the car.
When they got there, the protector wiped his brow and gave a sigh of relief. “That was a close one,” he said quietly. “Those guards can sometimes be a little bit difficult. It’s a good thing I transformed some money.” He opened the door of the car.
“Excuse me,” said a voice behind them. “Could you come with me please?”
The three jumped and turned quickly around. To their surprise they saw a Chinese girl standing before them, who was close to the same age as George and Emberly. She was wearing a well worn sweater, and shoes that looked two decades old. She smiled shyly, and said, “I’m Jiu Na. I wonder if you could come with me to my house. It’s not far away – right over there.” She pointed to a small shack nearby that looked like the roof was about to fall in. Other little, run-down shacks like it stretched off into the distance by the side of a trickle of water running down an open ditch.
The protector looked at George and Emberly for a moment. Then he said, “We’re kind of in a hurry and probably won’t have time to go to your house. What do you need?”
“I have something to show you,” she said pleadingly. “Won’t you please come? It’s very important.”
“Well,” said the protector, “I don’t know. Maybe we’ll come back some other time.” He started to get into the car, signaling for George and Emberly to get in as well.
Jiu Na looked like she was on the verge of tears. “But you’ve got to come!” she cried. “I have to show it to you! He said I had to!”
The protector stopped, and looked sharply up at Jiu Na. “Who told you that?” he asked.
“The funny little brown man,” Jiu Na said miserably. “I didn’t want to tell you about him because I wasn’t sure you’d believe me. He was so strange.”
The protector quickly closed the car door and turned to face Jiu Na. “Did he have leathery skin and a gravely voice?” he asked with rising excitement.
“Yes,” said Jiu Na in surprise. “Do you know him?”
“It’s the Ziphon,” said the protector, turning to George. “We’d better go.” Turning back to Jiu Na he said, “Lead on.”
She smiled and said, “I’m sorry. I should have realized you’d know who he was. Come with me.” She then led them across a small field to the shack. They stumbled occasionally over the ruts running across the dark field, since it was too dark to see clearly. The spotlights on the field behind them did little more than cast difficult shadows across the uneven ground.
The door of the shack was scratched and scarred and creaked heavily as Jiu Na pushed it open. Inside by the dim light of a single bulb hanging from the ceiling they could see that the shack had only a dirt floor and a few sparse furnishings. An older woman was standing by a makeshift sink. She turned and smiled at them as they entered.
“This is my mother,” said Jiu Na.
“Hello,” said the older woman. “Would you like some rice?” She was already reaching for some plates on a rickety shelf.
“No, thank you,” said the protector quickly. “But we do appreciate your kindness in letting us come into your home.”
“My daughter said you would be coming,” said Mrs. Na. “I’m sorry that my home is so simple. We had to move here a year ago when my husband disappeared.”
George looked up sharply. “Disappeared?” he asked curiously. “One year ago?”
“That’s right,” said Jiu Na. “One day he was just gone, without any warning. He went to work and didn’t come back. He had a good job too, and we lived in a nice house. But after he disappeared, we couldn’t stay there anymore. Nobody has heard from him or has any idea where he went, although sometimes I dream that he comes to me in my sleep and writes in my hand.”
George’s mouth was dry, and he could suddenly feel the pounding of his heart in his ears. He stared in shock at Jiu Na, hardly believing what she had just said.
She looked curiously back at George. “What’s wrong?” she asked quietly.
With an effort, he said slowly, “My father disappeared too. One year ago. And no one knows where he went. And sometimes I dream that he comes and writes on my hand.”
Jiu Na and her mother stared at George, their eyes wide. “You poor boy,” Mrs. Na said after a moment. “It must be very hard for you.”
George gave a half hearted smile, but didn’t know what to say. He shifted from one foot to the other.
“If that’s so, then you must have talked to the leathery brown man too,” said Jiu Na softly. “And you probably have one of these.” And with this, she pulled a small, clear rock from behind a pot on a scratched shelf and held it up.
George gasped. The rock reflected the dim light in the shack and seemed to magnify it as if it were much brighter than it really was. Although it was several feet away in Jiu Na’s hand, George could almost feel it throbbing. Slowly he pulled the pouch containing his own rock from his pocket. When he reached inside it felt icy cold, but by the time he pulled it out it had become almost too hot to touch.
The instant George’s rock came out of the pouch a shaft of brilliant light shot between the two stones. The tiny shack was bathed in light so bright that everyone was temporarily blinded.
And then the light was gone.
The rock in George’s hand suddenly felt neither hot nor cold and was perfectly clear. It seemed so ordinary that if George hadn’t felt and seen what had just happened, he would never have believed it.
“Wow!” said Emberly in amazement. “That was cool. Do it again!”
“I don’t know how,” mumbled George. “I don’t even know what just happened.”
“You mean, you don’t know how to control it?” said Jiu Na in disappointment. “When the leathery brown man told me you three would be coming, I was hoping one of you would have a rock like this and would know what to do with it and how to use it.”
“When did this little brown man come?” asked the protector.
“A few days ago, right after the fallen star came down in that field over there and I found the rock. He didn’t say much – just something about a sacrifice I could make, and that a man and a boy and girl would be coming, and they might help me know what to do to protect the earth from fire and ice, and to save my father.”
“Save your father!” exclaimed George. “He never mentioned anything like that when he came to me. He just told me to find the protector and that the earth was in danger from fire and ice.”
“Who is the protector?” asked Jiu Na.
“That would be me,” said the protector with a bow. “I hope I won’t startle you and your mother too much if I say that I am from another planet and am here on assignment to protect the earth.”
Mrs. Na stepped back in alarm, but Jiu Na didn’t seem surprised at all. “Is the leathery little man from your world too?” she asked.
“No,” replied the protector. “That was a ‘Ziphon,’ a being that lives sideways through time and knows much of the future. He recently came to me and to George here, to give us a warning that the earth is in danger, and we are now trying to figure out what that danger is. So we came here to your country—“
“You mean, you’re not from China?” exclaimed Jiu Na.
“Actually,” said George, “I’m from California, in the USA.”
“You mean America?!” Jiu Na cried, staring at George in total amazement. “You speak Chinese very well,” she said softly.
“I don’t actually speak Chinese at all,” said George with an embarrassed laugh. Jiu Na and her mother stared at him in confusion.
“This is probably a lot to be telling you all at once,” interjected the protector, “but I have a few tools that I use in my … uhm … profession, and I transformed George, Emberly and I from our normal appearance, so that we would look like Chinese people. We are also chewing some translator gum, which allows us to speak Chinese. I know this all probably sounds a little crazy to you—“
“Oh, not at all!” said Jiu Na. “Ever since my father disappeared strange things have been happening. But strangest of all was when that big star fell the other night with such a huge crash! I was the first to get over to where it fell. People were running up from everywhere. It was hot and steamy and scary, and some people thought a war had started or the end of the world had come. And then I found this rock. I was drawn to it somehow. I haven’t told anyone I have it. But I know it must have come with the fallen star. Somehow, it seemed like it was meant just for me.”
“It’s a relief, that you haven’t told anyone,” said the protector. “When George first came to me we did a little research on his rock.” Briefly he told Jiu Na of what they had learned about rocks from the planet Uth, and the strange powers they had.
“That explains a lot,” said Jiu Na. “Right before the star fell, my school said I needed a new uniform or I couldn’t attend in the fall when school starts up again. I knew we didn’t have the money to buy one, so it looked like I wouldn’t be able to go to school anymore. If you don’t go to school here in China, you’re trapped in a life of poverty forever.”
“Then two days after I found this rock, it suddenly got very hot while I was walking to the market. Then it slipped out of my hand into a ditch and when I dug through the weeds to find it, I found the money I needed for my uniform—the exact amount!”
“That sounds like what happened to me at the store!” said George. “The rock helped me find a can of pickled peaches.”
“A can of WHAT?” exclaimed both Jiu Na and her mother.
The protector laughed. “It’s an American thing, so don’t worry about it. Has the rock done anything else strange?”
“Well, there was one other time it did,” said Jiu Na reluctantly. “It was kind of scary, so I don’t like to talk about it.”
A prickly feeling went up the back of George’s neck. He had a feeling he knew what she was about to say.
“A few nights ago,” continued Jiu Na slowly, “I woke up to see the rock glowing. When I picked it up I felt like I needed to go outside. I went out and looked up at the stars. They seemed closer than normal that night.” Jiu Na shivered. There was silence for a moment in the shack. “Suddenly something very strange happened. It was like I could suddenly see way out in space. I saw a ship with a window, and at the window I saw a creature.” Jiu Na shuffled her feet uncomfortably. “He had a dog-like face, and it seemed like I could feel evil coming from him. And behind him I saw my father.” Jiu Na’s voice broke, and she stared at the floor.
Slowly George said, “I saw the same thing one night. Only behind the creature was MY father!”
Jiu Na looked up sharply. “What does it all mean?” she exclaimed. “Why are you and I seeing the same things half way around the world?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out,” said the protector. “The dog-like creature you saw is from a cruel race of creatures known as the ‘Grak.’ While I know they are up to some type of mischief with these fallen stars, so far I haven’t been able to find out what it is.”
Suddenly they heard a screech from the corner of the little shack. Turning, they saw Emberly looking with disgust at an egg plant sitting on the top of a little basket on the floor.
“You have one of those awful egg rocks! You should throw it away!” She picked up the egg plant and aimed it at the shack’s single, tiny window.
“Emberly, stop!” commanded the protector. “That’s food for Jiu Na and her mother. It just needs to be cooked and it will taste good.”
“Really?” said Emberly, looking at the egg plant in wonder. Suddenly she thrust the egg plant at Jiu Na’s mother. “Cook it,” she commanded. “I want to try some.”
“Now, Emberly,” said the protector gently, taking the egg plant, “It would take too long to cook, and besides we have plenty of food at home.”
“I want to try some!” yelled Emberly.
“I can cook some if she likes,” said Mrs. Na gently. “We also have fried rice.”
“I’m sorry,” apologized the protector. “I’m afraid I failed to introduce us properly. This is Emberly, an orphan in my care. She is also from another world. I’m afraid she doesn’t yet know very much about earth manners.”
“What don’t I know?” demanded Emberly in surprise. “I thought you taught me to be honest and open with people about what I thought?”
The protector sighed. “True,” he said patiently. “But not all the time. There are times you need to not say anything in order to be polite.”
Emberly shook her head. “Earth is a very confusing place. First you’re supposed to do things, then you’re not. Then you’re supposed to say things, then you’re not. How are you supposed to know the difference?”
Mrs. Na took Emberly’s hand and patted it. “There, there, it’s not that bad,” she said. “I’m sure you’ll learn what you need to know soon enough.”
Emberly pulled her hand away from Mrs. Na and looked at it. Then she looked up at Mrs. Na. “That felt nice,” she said in a trembling voice. “Why did you do it?”
“To comfort you,” said Mrs. Na simply.
Emberly looked confused for a moment. Then she took Mrs. Na’s hand and patted it. A tear was in her eye. “You’re a mother, aren’t you?” she said softly. “I had a mother once.”
Mrs. Na took Emberly in her arms and gave her a hug. Emberly was crying softly. The protector coughed uncomfortably and George shifted from one foot to the other again. Jiu Na stood to the side, not knowing what to say.
At last the protector said softly to Mrs. Na, “there are some things I have not been able to provide for Emberly. Thank you.”
Suddenly Jiu Na said to George, “What’s that blinking light in your pocket?”
George looked down to see his cell phone blinking. “Gosh,” he said. “I thought it wouldn’t work here.” He pushed the answer button and said “hello?”
There was no response.
“It’s probably not working normally,” said the protector. “In fact, I’m surprised it showed in incoming call. The signal probably linked through my car and the transporter somehow.
“Is that a cell phone?” said Jiu Na. “My father used to have one.”
“Yes,” said George simply. Turning to the protector he said worriedly, “Looks like I might be in trouble with my Mom.”
“Yes, we’d best be going,” said the protector. “I think we found what we needed here. And I’m especially grateful that you have the Uth rock, Jiu Na, rather than someone else. I think it’s safer in your hands. Be careful with it, and don’t tell another soul you have it.”
“Before we leave,” he continued, “let me give you something.” He pulled two small, silver rings from his pocket. He handed one to Jiu Na. “It looks like an ordinary ring for your finger, but it’s much more. It’s actually a communicator.”
“Here, George,” said the protector, handing the other ring to George. “You need one too. The way it works is pretty simple, really,” said the protector. “If you want to call someone, just slip it off your finger and put it in your ear—“
“Your ear!” exclaimed Jiu Na.
“Yes,” said the protector. “Just the outer part of your ear, like this.” The protector slipped a third ring into his ear. “Try it—it fits quite well.”
Jiu Na and George each put the ring in the outer part of their ear and were surprised that the protector was right—it did fit quite comfortably.
“So,” continued the protector, “just put it in the outer part of your ear then say the name of the person you want to call. Of course it has to be someone else who has a similar ring. No matter where they are in the world, their ring will tighten three times, to let the person know someone is trying to call them. When that person puts their ring in their ear, the two can talk to each other.”
“How can the ring hear you when you talk?” asked George. “Don’t you have to take it out and put it up to your mouth?”
“No,” the protector said. “I know it sounds crazy, but when you talk, the sound echoes through your head. We’re all a bit hollow headed, you know. The transmitter in your ear picks up these vibrations and is able to interpret them.”
“What about the language difference?” asked Jiu Na. “If I call George in America, will he understand me? Or do I need some of your special gum?”
“No gum is needed when you use these,” said the protector. “I’ve given you each a ring that translates all incoming calls into your own language. I’ll be wearing a ring too, so you can call me anytime you need to. Just don’t call me during the 6:00 o’clock news. That’s my sacred time, you know.”
George looked at the ring curiously. It was a tremendous relief to have it, since he had often wondered what to do if he needed the protector’s help when he wasn’t there.
“What about me?” demanded Emberly. “Don’t I get a ring?”
“Yes, of course,” said the protector, handing one to Emberly. “Although you’ll usually be with me, wherever I am.”
A big smile spread across Emberly’s face. She put the ring in her ear and said “George Brown!” George immediately felt his ring tighten on his finger three times. Emberly then started repeating “George Brown!” over and over. George’s ring kept tightening so many times that it felt like his finger was being mangled.
Turning to Mrs. Na, the protector said, “Thank you again for accepting us into your home. We’ll be off now, but will be in touch with Jiu Na.”
The protector, George and Emberly left the shack, followed by Jiu Na. It was very late, and fewer bicycles, people and cars were around than before.
“Now, Jiu Na,” said the protector, as they walked toward the car. “If anything unusual happens to you or the fallen star, call us immediately. The Grak are up to something, and it’s only a matter of time before something happens. We’ll be counting on you to let us know what goes on here, and we’ll let you know what’s happening at George’s home. Also, make sure to let us know if you have any more strange experiences with your Uth stone, or any further visits from a Ziphon.”
“O.k.” said Jiu Na with a worried look on her face. “Will you find out how the Uth stone works, and how to help my father?”
“I’ll do all I can,” the protector replied. “I don’t know how your fathers are involved in this whole thing, but I intend to find out.”
After a hurried good-bye, the three left Jiu Na and went quickly back to the car and Ant Number 4. As they got in, they could see Jiu Na and her mother standing in the doorway of their shack waving at them.
“It’s a great relief that Jiu Na has the rock, rather than someone else,” said the protector. “She seems like a sensible girl. I’m sure she’ll keep it safe.”
Ant Number 4 put the car in gear and they started moving along the road. Soon Jiu Na and the field with the fallen star were out of sight.
George’s mind was so caught up in what had happened at Jiu Na’s house that he hardly noticed the scenes of China passing along the side of the road. There were still quite a few bikes everywhere, as well as taxis, buses, street carts and people. Many of the streets were of cobblestone. In the window of many shops were pictures of products for sale, everything from ice cream to stylish clothes, with a mass of Chinese characters below or to the side of each picture describing the product.
However, George saw very little of any of this. Instead he was wondering how Jiu Na’s father and his father fit into everything that was happening. Why had he and Jiu Na seen them on the Grak ship when the Uth stone had tunneled their vision out into space? Why had they been captured by the Grak a year ago? And what was their connection with the fallen star and the Uth rock? None of it made any sense!
The car dipped down an incline and George saw that they had returned to the hidden gully where the transporter had brought them. However, the transporter door was nowhere in sight!
“Not to worry,” said the protector, noticing the concerned look on George’s face. “The transporter door is still there—it’s just cloaked.” He pulled what looked like a small remote control from the glove box of the car. When he clicked one of the buttons, the transporter door instantly appeared in front of them.
“It will disappear and no longer be here as soon as we’re through,” said the protector. “Now let me check one little thing…” He clicked a few more buttons on the remote control, then studied a tiny message on a viewscreen at the top of the remote.
“Looks like it’s all clear on the other side,” he said. “There are no human life forms detected within 1,000 feet of the transporter door in California, so we’re o.k. to go through.”
Ant Number 4 moved the car forward. Once again as they moved through the door George felt his skin tingle and saw the rainbows of color bubbling through the car. It felt almost as if they were floating through a stained glass window that was constantly shifting color.
Suddenly George heard a scraping, scratching sound and felt the car jerk wildly. Muffled California sunlight came back in a rush, but there were tall bushes and brambly branches screeching along the windows and exterior of the car as it came through the other side of the transporter.
“Something’s wrong!” the protector yelled over the scraping noise. “There were no bushes here when we went to China! The transporter door must have shifted somehow!”
The scratching, wrenching noises came to an abrupt halt. Everything was still. The afternoon California sunshine played through the branches and bushes surrounding the car.
“This is very strange,” said the protector. “These bushes shouldn’t be here.” He pushed several buttons on the little remote control in his hand, then shook his head. “The readings I’m getting make no sense. They say the door didn’t move at all. But where did all these bushes come from?”
Setting the remote aside, the protector tried to open his door. It was jammed shut by a huge bush. The protector heaved and shoved on the door, but it hardly moved. Finally, the protector rolled down the window, letting a shower of leaves and small branches into the car. With a good deal of grunting, he climbed out of the window and wriggled through the branches outside.
George suddenly realized that the protector looked like an American again. He looked down at his hands, then at his face in the rear view mirror. He was back to normal. They must have been transformed back to themselves when they came through the transporter.
“Why don’t you come on out the window like I did,” called the protector’s voice from outside. “It’ll probably be awhile before we can go—I’ve got to clear away the bushes and fix the transformer screen. It’s all ripped up by these bushes!”
George and Emberly scrambled out of the passenger seat window and through the surrounding branches, trying not to be scratched too badly in the process. There were branches and brambles everywhere. They found the protector looking sadly at the tattered gauzy material that circled the transporter doorway.
“I can’t imagine how this could have happened,” he said. “It’s as if these bushes sprang up out of nowhere while we were in China! The transporter door was cloaked and invisible then. Look at how badly it’s ripped up!” The protector shook his head glumly.
George looked around at the surrounding bushes. “This whole place looks different. There’s bushes everywhere. The fallen star should be right over there in the open, but I can’t see it. Are you sure we came back to the right place?”
“We must have,” replied the protector. “The coordinates on the controller are exactly the same. But I suppose it could have malfunctioned. Why don’t you go over to the fallen star and see if it’s still there. Meanwhile, I’ll try and get this mess sorted out.”
“O.k.” said George. He and Emberly set off in the direction of the fallen star, or at least where he thought it used to be. Emberly started playing with her new ring again, saying “George Brown!” over and over, until George finally took off his ring and put it in his pocket.
Bushes were everywhere. While the ground seemed somehow familiar, George marveled at how different everything looked. Before they went to China an hour or so before, this had been an open, empty field. Now it was overgrown with bushes and weeds.
George and Emberly struggled through the thick undergrowth, clearing a path through the branches.
A sudden shadow seemed to come across the sun. In the same instant George and Emberly emerged from the tangle of bushes into what seemed to be a small clearing. In the middle of the clearing was the fallen star with its hook-like arm pointing towards the north. Surrounding it were several of the most hideous creatures George had ever seen.
Each had a dog-like face and was covered with a rank, thick coat of fur. Their eyes blazed red with malevolence. Each crouched on its grotesque haunches with its dank tail dragging behind it.
George and Emberly stood transfixed at the edge of the clearing, their mouths open in shock. One of the creatures rose up and started to approach them.
“Welcome,” it said in a slithering, harsh voice. It’s face twisted into a sickening smile. “How nice of you to come visit us.”
As if out of nowhere, a huge whip appeared in the creature’s mangled paw. Quick as lightning it lashed out at George and Emberly. With a scream trapped in his throat, George turned to run. He was too late. The whip twisted around his arms and legs as if it were a snake. Everywhere it touched him, it felt icy cold. It wrapped around him and bound him so tightly that he couldn’t move.
George struggled and kicked but couldn’t work his way free of the whip. He tried to cry out, but nothing came out of his parched throat. He felt a sudden sting on his back and a line of icy coldness twisting around him, and realized that another of the creatures had imprisoned him with its whip as well. George staggered, trying to run, but couldn’t seem to move. The creatures yanked on their whips, pulling George closer. He stumbled and fell. Hearing a thud next to him he turned to see Emberly struggling to free herself from the whips of two of the other creatures.
George felt hot breath on his neck. Looking up he was horrified to see the hideous face of one of the creatures a foot in front of him. The stench of its putrid breath nearly made him faint. A dribble of slobber dropped from the creature’s mouth onto George’s shirt.
George felt icy cold. He couldn’t move and blackness seemed to be gathering around him. Everything started to turn grey.
And then, like a tiny shaft of light piercing through an empty darkness, George heard a faint thread of simple music. It seemed to come from far away, like an almost forgotten dream coming back to memory. The creature towering over him seemed to hesitate, not certain what to do.
The music grew louder. It was a simple melody, beautifully sung. George could not understand the words, but sensed that they spoke of purity and goodness. Struggling, he managed to turn around enough to see where the sound was coming from—and was amazed to see that it was from Emberly! She was singing softly, her eyes closed, still imprisoned by the whips. A creature hovering over her had a look on its face of pain.
The singing stopped for an instant, and the spell seemed broken. Emberly cried, “Sing, George!” Then she was singing again and the magic returned. She was louder this time, and as she sang her strength seemed to grow.
‘Sing?’ thought George. That made no sense. How could a simple song overcome these powerful creatures?
But then again, a lot of things lately didn’t make sense. Like how a little, clear rock could answer math questions, or help find things. Or how a funny little creature from another world could live sideways through time and foretell the future.
Remembering his Uth rock, George struggled, groping with his hands, trying to reach the rock in its pouch in his pocket. He couldn’t do it. His hands were bound too tightly.
Emberly was looking intently at George, as if willing him to join her in singing. George opened his mouth to sing, but no sound came out. The whip was tightening around George so he could hardly breathe. The creature leaning over him was bending closer, and George knew he had to act fast.
In a croaked whisper that he could hardly hear himself, George sang, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king.”
He didn’t know why he had chosen that song. It was just the first one that came into his head. However, the effect was immediate. The creature hovering over George jerked back in distaste as if stung, and the whips binding George seemed to loosen a bit.
With renewed strength, George kept singing. “Let every heart prepare him room, and saints and angels sing, and saints and angels sing, and saints, and saints and angels sing.”
George could hear Emberly singing next to him, and could tell her voice was getting stronger as well. Although their songs were very different, they seemed to intertwine in the air like twisting vines climbing up a wall. The Grak stepped back, uncomfortably. Several were holding their hands over their ears. The whips were loose enough now that George could wriggle free of their grasp.
Without stopping his song, George struggled free of the whips and stood up. Emberly was standing also, still singing her haunting, peaceful melody. Several of the Grak took a menacing step forward, waving their paws in the air as if to fight off the songs that filled the clearing.
Suddenly there was a loud crack and a brilliant flash of light seared the air from George’s left. The Grak all jumped and turned, and found themselves facing the protector who stood at the edge of the clearing. Although still short and bald, he had a terrible look on his face of determination and strength that George had never seen before. He held a small, round object in his hand that seemed to pulse and glow.
The protector held up the round object and commanded, “Leave this place! Now!”
The Grak didn’t respond or move. In the instant of their hesitation, there was another ear splitting crack from the device in the protector’s hand, and the clearing was again filled with a brilliant, overpowering light.
The Grak scattered. In seconds there were none to be seen. George heard a humming noise from the nearby bushes where they had disappeared. Then he saw what looked like a small spacecraft shoot into the sky and disappear.
Quickly the protector strode over to George and Emberly. “Are you all right?” he asked urgently. “Did they hurt you in any way?”
“I’m fine,” George said in a shaky voice. Emberly said nothing, but stood shivering in the warm sunshine. It looked like there were tears in her eyes. Suddenly she collapsed.
“Quick!” said the protector to George, “help me carry her back to the car!”
The protector lifted her up and George grabbed her legs. Together, they struggled toward the car, fighting their way through the thick bushes. When they reached the car, George saw that the protector had packed away the gauzy transporter and its frame, and had cleared away most of the bushes that had surrounded the Volkswagen, although it was still scratched and scarred.
The protector opened the door and pulled Emberly onto the passenger seat and then gently pushed her forward toward the tiny door. Instantly she seemed to disappear, and then George could see her lying on the floor beneath the seat. The protector quickly followed. As he gently dragged her toward the door of his home, he yelled up at George, “come down and help me get her in.”
Without hesitation, George dove onto the passenger seat of the car, then leaned forward. He again felt himself falling while everything around him seemed to expand instantly in size. Then he was running toward the protector who nearly had Emberly to the door.
Together they pulled her into the protector’s lair. The instant they did so, the legs that George had been carrying disappeared and he found himself holding nothing but empty air. The protector was holding the pink furball that was Emberly, and had himself changed back to the flabby, small gray creature that was his true form.
“I’ve got some ‘heal all’ spray over in the cupboard,” said the protector. “Here, you hold her for a minute.” He shoved Emberly into George’s hands, then sprinted over to the cupboard.
George looked down at the furball in his hands. It was silent and didn’t move, in stark contrast to the bouncing, constantly moving shape he was used to seeing. “She saved us,” he said in a thick voice. “She started to sing right when it looked like they had us, and her singing changed everything.” He turned shakily to the protector. “Will she be all right?”
“I hope so,” said the protector, returning with a small spray bottle. “The effort and the strain of meeting the Grak again was probably too much for her. There’s nothing physically wrong with her. She’s just in shock.” The protector took Emberly over to the table where he started to carefully spray the ‘heal all’ spray onto the pink furball.
“What did you mean when you said she met the Grak again?” asked George, perplexed. “When did she meet the Grak the first time? Over the last few days?”
The protector looked gravely at George for a moment. Then he said quietly, “It was the Grak that destroyed her world, and everyone in it. Including all of her family. Somehow they turned all the Praetorians into stone. She alone survived.”
The protector turned back to Emberly and sprayed some more of the ‘heal all’ spray. Then silently the two watched the furball for a moment.
Suddenly it shuddered, then started to roll slowly in a circle around the table top.
The protector smiled. “She’s all right,” he said happily. “She’s still in shock I’m sure, but appears to be o.k.” He walked over and flopped on the couch with a sigh of relief. “Come here and tell me what happened.”
George took a seat on the fuzzy chair opposite the couch. The arms sticking out of it started to gently scratch his back. He had to admit the scratching felt pretty good.
Quickly George told what had happened while the protector looked at him gravely. When George had finished the protector said, “I don’t think they were expecting us. But their being there explains the thick bushes that came out of nowhere. They usually bring ‘insta-grow’ bushes or buildings or walls to hide their actions wherever they go. I don’t think they even realized the transporter was there when they placed the bushes, since of course it was invisible at the time.
“But what were they doing there?” asked George.
“Obviously, checking on the fallen star, and making sure it will do whatever they plan for it to do.”
“What about the singing?” asked George. “Why did that drive them away?”
“As you know,” replied the protector, “the Grak are evil and cruel. The songs you and Emberly sang were pure and simple and good. Emberly knew instinctively that is what she needed to do to survive, because of what had happened on her planet. I know it sounds strange, but they can’t stand that kind of purity. It weakens their power.”
“But Emberly’s people on her world were still destroyed,” said George. “Why didn’t they just sing to save themselves?”
“Well, the songs didn’t really scare them away today,” replied the protector. “Like I said, I don’t think they were expecting us, or they would have been ready. Because this weakness of the Grak is known, they usually wear very thick ear muffs if they know they will encounter someone who might use purity against them. Really, all your songs did was put them off until I arrived and could drive them away with the light bomb.”
“The light bomb?” repeated George, dumbly. “What’s that?”
The protector pulled out of his pocket the strange round object that he had used against the Grak. It looked similar to a golf ball.
“This is the light bomb,” said the protector, “and it is exactly what its name implies. It contains pure light, which the Grak cannot stand. A few flashes of this and they will usually leave.”
George shook his head. “This is all so weird,” he said. “So, you can fight the Grak with songs and light. Why not just use guns or other weapons.”
“Purity is more effective against the Grak,” replied the protector. “I know it sounds very odd. But you should see some of the wars the Grak have had with other creatures. Maybe if you come over some night I can find and show you one on the intergalactic late, late movie.”
“The chief weapons of the Grak are depression and despair,” said the protector. “I’d bet that’s what stands out in your mind when you think of what happened today.”
George nodded affirmatively.
“The Grak have been in many wars with creatures who cannot be killed,” continued the protector. “Amazing as it may seem to you, there are many races and creatures in the universe that cannot die in the regular way that you think of. But they can be captured. That is the greatest threat of the Grak, and their greatest art. They prefer to capture and imprison their enemies and make them slaves, even including those that can be killed.”
“Battles with the Grak are bizarre, strange affairs. They’re usually full of light and music instead of explosions and shooting. The Grak literally throw balls of despair at their enemies, which they are very good at creating. When the despair hits, their enemies usually drop their weapons, fall on their knees and weep, wishing they were dead. Those who fight the Grak use light and pure music and similar weapons. The battlefield is a constantly shifting scene of light and dark, for the Grak also have the ability to actually throw darkness and shadows to surround their enemies. These wars are nothing like the battles you people have on this planet. In a way, they are far more sinister and frightening, since if the Grak win, they take the very souls of their enemies. There are some things worse than death, you know.”
“Then,” said George slowly, struggling to force himself to say what he knew he must, “since they’ve apparently captured my dad like I saw that night, they must have subjected him to despair and other terrible things. How could he survive?”
“The Grak suppress their worst weapons when they want to,” replied the protector. “If they want to preserve someone to do something for them, they won’t torture them too badly. In your dad’s case, since they’ve had him for a year, there is probably something they want him to do. They’ve probably used just enough of their weapons of despair to intimidate and frighten him, and keep him under their control. They’re masters at enslaving people and getting them to do what they want.”
There was silence in the room for a moment. George felt a sense of horror at what the protector had just said. He could hardly stand the thought that his father could be under the control of such terrible creatures, and subject to their constant torture.
Suddenly the pink furball rolled onto the protector’s lap, and started to hum. The protector smiled and petted the ball, which rolled around his lap happily. “Emberly appears to be feeling better already!” he said happily. “She may not yet have learned earth manners, but she has a pure heart.”
Suddenly George stood up. “My cell phone!” he exclaimed. He quickly pulled it out of his pocket and looked at it as if seeing it for the first time.
“What about it?” asked the protector.
“It hasn’t rung!” said George. “It’s not like my mom to not call every hour.” He looked closer at the phone, then turned to the protector in dismay. “And I know why. It’s been turned off! After I saw it blinking in China, it was shut off somehow. Maybe it happened during our fight with the Grak.” Quickly he pushed some buttons on the phone. “Oh, no!” he exclaimed. “She left fifteen urgent messages on here! When I get home I’m dead!”
The protector laughed. “She may be overprotective, but it’s nice to have someone that cares that much about you, isn’t it?”
“Still,” he continued, “we can’t have her grounding you for weeks right now either. We still haven’t got this thing figured out, and there may be other places we need to go, and other things we need to do.” He went over to a cabinet, rummaged around, and came back with a small, yellow pill.
“Give her one of these as soon as you have a chance,” said the protector, handing the pill to George. “Offer to get her a drink of juice, or something, and drop it in when she’s not looking. It dissolves almost instantly in liquid.”
“What is it?” asked George curiously as he took the pill.
“It’s a ‘happy memory’ pill. It erases all unpleasant memories for the previous 6 to 8 hours, while leaving all other memories intact.”
“Wow!” said George looking at the pill in wonder.
The protector laughed. “I know what you’re probably thinking. You wish you had a whole box full, to save yourself from trouble all the time. Believe me, there’s a black market for these pills across the galaxy, and they’re in high demand everywhere. They’re quite hard to get. You have to have a prescription, and they’re very expensive.” Then the protector added in a lower tone, “I used them on my parents a few times before I came here, since I’m still a teenager you know. I can promise they work pretty well.”
Gratefully, George put the pill in his pocket. “So she’ll really forget all about not being able to reach me?”
“Pretty much,” nodded the protector. “Like I said, try to use it as quick as you can. Until you use the pill, things might be a little unpleasant, so don’t delay. We’ll meet tomorrow at the same time and place. Now, you’d best be going.”
George went quickly to the door. However, before he reached it, Emberly hopped up onto his shoulder, then bounced away again across the room. The protector smiled. “She’s definitely feeling better. I think I’ll give her a bite to eat, maybe some Vlob.”
Seeing the question in George’s eyes, the protector said, “It’s a green, moldy fungus that tastes great—a rare delicacy across the galaxy. Do you want to take some with you?”
“No thanks,” said George quickly, his stomach lurching. “I’d better be going.”
The protector pulled a jar full of a green substance from the fridge wearing a sweater. “Ok then, it’s your loss,” he said while prying to get the lid off. “By tomorrow I’ll develop my pictures of China’s fallen star, and analyze them. Then we can plan what to do next.”
“I hope there is a tomorrow,” said George slowly. The thought of what he was about to face at home made him wince. Gratefully he patted the pill in his pocket, then darted through the door and was gone.
Janet was waiting by the front door when George came home. She had the biggest smile on her face that George had seen in a long time.
“You’re gonna get it!” she said with glee as he came up the steps. “Mom’s just about freaked out trying to reach you for the last 3 hours!” She happily followed George through the door and into the front hall, licking her lips in anticipation.
“GEORGE FIDELIUS BROWN!!” boomed his mother’s voice as George came into the living room. She looked all purple in the face. “Where have you been?! I’ve been trying to reach you for hours!!!”
“Well,” began George, “I, uh—“
“How could you ignore my repeated phone calls?!” his mother roared again. “What possible excuse can you give for being gone for so many hours without a single word?!”
“Uhm, actually,” began George again, “it happened that—“
“There is simply NO excuse for your behavior!!” interrupted his mother again. “How could there be?! Nothing you can say will help! No possible excuse will work! So where were you?”
Her eyes flashed fire while waiting for George to answer her impossible questions. Janet was smiling broadly. DoorJam jumped onto the arm of the couch and rubbed against George’s hand, the only one who had no interest in seeing George suffer at the moment.
George mouthed a few words, then said weakly, “can I get you a drink?”
“A DRINK?!” his mother cried. “What would I want with a drink at a time like this? I want you to tell me exactly where you have been and what you have been doing for the last three hours. And this better be good!”
“Well, uh,” began George, “I was out at the orchard—“
“The orchard?” screamed his mother. “Without my permission? How could you?” She threw up her hands in exasperation. “Let me tell you, young man—“
She then proceeded to verbally rip George apart, word by word, while Janet watched in glee. George stood there helplessly, feeling lower and lower by the minute. DoorJam, seeing an opportunity for a good, long rub, continued to press himself up against George’s hand. This was the type of opportunity he liked best.
After five full, nonstop minutes, George’s mother stopped to catch her breath. Janet, sensing that the best was over, gave George one last smile and left the room. DoorJam kept rubbing for attention.
To George’s surprise his mother suddenly sat down in a chair and looked like she was about to cry. “When I think of your poor father, disappeared without a trace, and you and Janet all that’s left in the world. And now you go and do this!”
George’s stomach felt like it had dropped all the way to the floor. Her anger was bad enough, but he wasn’t sure he could stand tears. “I’m sorry Mom—“
“Ill take that drink now,” she said abruptly looking up, her eyes shiny as if they were about to gush a heavy flow of water.
Gratefully, George darted from the room, tossing an “I’ll be right back!” over his shoulder. With shaky hands he poured a drink of orange juice into a cup, then dropped the yellow pill into it. There was a good deal of popping and fizzing while it quickly dissolved. Carrying it back into the room, he gave it to his mother, whose teary eyes had unexpectedly hardened again. It looked like she was about ready to launch into another attack.
She took a sip, then opened her mouth to start attacking him again. But to her own surprise, nothing came out. She suddenly looked down into her cup for a minute. “Strange,” she murmured, frowning. “I had something terribly important to say, but now its slipped my mind.” She took another gulp. Looking at the glass appreciatively, she said, “This is sure good orange juice. I’ll have to buy this brand more often.”
A smile of relief broadened on George’s face as his mother drained the whole cup. Setting it aside on the lamp table, she turned to George and said, “Now, what were we talking about?”
“Uhm,” said George, thinking fast. A sudden inspiration came into his mind. “About how Janet’s been going to the mall too often.”
“Hmmm,” mumbled his mother. She waved her hand in the air as if trying to ward off an invisible fly. “No, I’m sure that wasn’t it. I’d be upset if that’s what it was. We were talking about something much more pleasant. What was it?”
“Well,” said George slowly, disappointed that the power of the pill had saved his sister. DoorJam rubbed up against his hand again. “About DoorJam,” he said abruptly. “And how long we’ve had him, and how much you like him.”
“Yes, that was it,” said his mother immediately. She came over and picked up DoorJam, who purred happily at the unexpected attention he was getting. “Such a good cat. Maybe I should buy a special type of food for him.”
She sat down again, petting DoorJam and smiling. Suddenly Janet popped her head in the room again. “So,” she said with relish, “how long is George grounded for, Mom?”
“Grounded?” said George’s mother. “Why should he be grounded?”
Janet’s mouth dropped open in shock. It was now George’s turn to smile happily at his sister.
“For being gone for three hours without a word and driving you out of your mind!” said Janet sharply. “The little twirp nearly made you call the police!”
George’s mother frowned. “Don’t call your brother a twirp,” she said automatically. Then she smiled again. “Gone for three hours? Nonsense. I don’t remember any such thing. George and I were just sitting here talking about DoorJam, and what a nice cat he is.”
Janet gaped at her mother in amazement, while George’s smile grew broader.
“How can you not remember?” Janet cried. “You were pacing the floor for hours, trying to call him on the phone every five minutes!”
“That’s impossible,” said George’s mother dismissively, with a waive of her hand. “If that had happened, I’d remember it.”
“Then you’re not going to punish him?” Janet said in wonder.
“Whatever for?” replied his mother, scratching DoorJam under the chin.
Janet threw up her arms in amazement. As she left the room she grumbled, “Sometimes I think everyone in this family’s gone mad!”
“So,” said George after she was gone. “What’s for dinner?”
His mother looked up. “I think I’ll make your favorite—a pepperoni casserole,” she said with a smile. Then she got up and headed for the kitchen.
George grinned. Now he understood why the ‘happy memory’ pills were in such demand across the galaxy. After a quick pat on DoorJam’s head, he strode from the room.
George had the dream again that night. It was the same as always. His father climbed through the window of his bedroom, came over next to George and sat down on the edge of his bed. He looked very sad and didn’t say a word, while George lay there watching him, unable to move or speak. George’s father then took his right hand and silently began writing on his palm, causing that same tingly, uncomfortable feeling. George still could not tell what he was writing. This went on for some time until he abruptly stopped, walked over and climbed out the window and disappeared without saying a word.
George slept fitfully after that. After tossing and turning and dropping in and out of sleep, George finally got out of bed and went over to look out the window at the empty street below. It was still dark. He began to wonder and worry about what was happening. Why had the clear rock come to him? What strange powers did it have, and how could it help him? Why had a fallen star come down near his home, and the same thing had come down in China? What were the Grak planning to do? How could he do anything to stop them?
With a sigh, George went back to his bed and flopped down. There were no answers, only questions. The protector had helped, but even he couldn’t figure out what the Grak were planning. For the millionth time, George wished his father were there, that he really had come through that window. He knew he could talk to him about the problem, and he would understand and know what to do.
There was a sudden loud ‘pop!’ at the foot of George’s bed. To his amazement, he saw the same leathery brown Ziphon as before, sitting on the bedspread. Before George could cry out, the creature said in its gravely, dry voice, “George Brown, the time is almost at hand for your decision, and your sacrifice. Beware, George Brown. The person you least suspect may betray you!”
Then with another loud ‘pop!’ the creature was gone.
George didn’t move, unsure whether to leap out of bed, cry out in alarm, or do nothing at all. The Ziphon’s words echoed through his mind. His time of decision was almost at hand, and so was his time of sacrifice. What did that mean? And someone he least suspected may betray him. What was that all about? The protector had said that Ziphons always gave true messages. But who did he least suspect, and why would that person betray him?
George continued to sit silently, pondering the Ziphon’s message. Someone he least suspected might betray him. George didn’t suspect anyone, so who could it be? Why would someone need or want to betray him? Who on earth had the Ziphon been talking about?
Slowly, George got out of bed and began to pace his room. A person who he least suspected would betray him. The person he least suspected. His mother? Of course not. She had nearly scalped him yesterday for betraying her. His sister Janet? No. She knew nothing of any of this, although he didn’t doubt she would take glee in betraying him if she had a chance. At any rate, he wouldn’t ‘least suspect’ her.
His father? George sat down with the enormity of the idea. Could his father be the one he least suspected who would betray him? But why, and how? He hadn’t even seen his father in a year, other than in his dream, or that night when he thought he saw him standing behind the Grak. His father would never betray him. George was sure of it.
Who else was left? Any why would they betray him? George got up and began to pace again. An uncomfortable thought had been bubbling up inside him, and now was screaming to be released and recognized. Who was the person who seemed to know everything about the Grak? Who else knew about the rock he had found, the fallen star, and the Ziphon’s warnings? Who was he trusting most these days, and spending most of his time with? Indeed, who else could the person he least suspected be, other than—
—the protector himself!
The enormity of the realization made George sit down hard on his bed, as if thrown there by an invisible hand. The protector?! It was the protector who would betray him? How could that be? And why?
George had come to rely on the protector more than he had realized until that moment. He felt as if the floor he had been standing on, sure that it would never move, had suddenly been ripped from under his feet. How could the protector betray him? How? The Ziphon had told him to seek out the protector in the first place. Why would he now tell him that this person he had sought out was not to be trusted after all?
Unless, of course, there was another reason for him to seek out and come to know the protector. The Ziphon had never said the protector was going to help him—he had only told George to seek him out ‘to better see what you must do.’ Perhaps he needed to come to know the protector in order to learn about the Grak. Perhaps the protector was in league with the Grak and had been sent to lure George into a false sense of security, saying that he was an enemy of the Grak, only to betray him to them in the end. George trusted the protector so much that when it came to the Grak, he would do anything the protector said to do. Who could make sure their plan worked better than him?
But what if he were wrong? What if the Ziphon had meant someone else? How could he afford to mistrust the protector if he were really a friend? How on earth was he to know for sure?
He needed to talk with someone. He needed it desperately. But there was no one. He didn’t dare tell his mother since she would confine him to his room for the rest of his life. Telling his sister Janet would do no good since she would just go and gleefully spill the beans to his mother. And he obviously couldn’t tell the protector. Who else was there?
George felt a sudden pain in his finger. In alarm he stared stupidly at the ring he had received from the protector. It tightened painfully on his finger three times! Someone was calling him! Was it the protector? Or Jiu Na?
George quickly removed the ring and slipped it in his ear. He felt a bit silly having a ring in his ear and talking into thin air. Tentatively he said in a half whisper, “hello?”
“George?” came a girl’s voice into his ear. “Is that you? This is Jiu Na. I need to talk to you!”
“Sure,” said George quietly, so his sister wouldn’t hear him from her room next door. “What’s wrong?”
“I just had a visit from one of those strange creatures the protector told us about,” came Jiu Na’s voice. “I don’t remember now what it’s called.”
“A Ziphon,” said George automatically. “And I just had a visit from one too.”
“You did?” cried Jiu Na excitedly. “What did he say to you?”
George hesitated, unsure what to say. Could Jiu Na be the person the Ziphon had warned him about? But he hardly knew her. And how could she betray him from China?
“He told me something scary,” said Jiu Na, not waiting for his answer. “He said the time was short for me to decide, and to beware the person I least suspected, that they may betray me!”
“That’s exactly what he told me!” cried George. Now he knew Jiu Na could not be the person the Ziphon had warned him about, or she would not have received the same message—or told him about it.
“It’s awful, isn’t it?” came Jiu Na’s voice. “Because I’ve thought and thought, and the only person I least suspect is the protector! I don’t want it to be him, but who else could it be?”
“That’s what I decided, too,” replied George slowly.
“What are we to do?” cried Jiu Na. “We need help. I thought the protector was helping us, but it looks like he’s not. He must be in league with the Grak, and fooling us. We’re just two kids half a world apart. What can we do?”
“I don’t know,” said George, his head starting to ache. “It was hard enough to figure out before. I could never understand how I was supposed to prevent the Grak from doing whatever they’ve got cooked up. Now it seems impossible.”
There was silence for a moment, as both were lost in their own thoughts.
“Maybe we’re wrong,” said Jiu Na at last. “Maybe it’s not the protector. Could it be Emberly instead?”
Emberly? In league with the Grak? The thought was impossible. “I don’t think so,” said George. “She saved me from the Grak when we got back from China. They attacked us.” Quickly George told of the Grak that had attacked him and Emberly, and how her song had saved them.
“That’s horrible,” said Jiu Na when he had finished. “I agree it couldn’t be Emberly. But how about the protector? He saved you too, didn’t he?”
“He wasn’t there until the Grak were already pulling back,” said George. “Maybe his ‘light bomb’ wasn’t what really scared them away after all! He told me later that our singing would not have stopped the Grak, that they were only temporarily pushed back. But maybe he was trying to hide the fact that the songs are the way to overcome them. If he’s in league with the Grak, he wouldn’t want us to know of a weapon that will truly stop them.”
“What are we to do, George?” asked Jiu Na plaintively. “We need help. We can’t do this alone.”
“I feel the same way,” said George helplessly. “But the Ziphon’s message must have been given to us for a reason. Hasn’t he told us that we can somehow make a difference? We just have to keep trying, and maybe something will open up for us. Maybe we can do more than we realize.”
“But what about the protector?” asked Jiu Na. “What do we do about him now?”
“We’ve got to keep our eye on him,” said George with sudden resolution. “There’s no better way to prepare for whatever is coming than to keep playing along with him, make him think we don’t know about him, but watch him close at the same time.”
“That sounds dangerous,” said Jiu Na. “If he’s in league with the Grak, he could betray us anytime. Isn’t it safer just to stop having anything to do with him?”
“That will make him too suspicious,” replied George. “No, we’ve got to keep going along with him, for now at least. He wanted me to meet him this morning, so I will. I’ll play along and act like everything is normal.” George could see through his window a faint light beginning to spread across the eastern horizon. It would soon be morning.
“Well, be careful,” said Jiu Na. “And call me as soon as you’ve met with him, and let me know what’s going on.”
“All right,” said George. After that, there wasn’t much to say. They finally said their good-byes and George put the ring back on his finger.
He sat on the edge of his bed for a long time, pondering every word of what the Ziphon had said, and trying to remember everything the protector had done and said. It still seemed impossible that the protector could be their enemy, but the Ziphon’s warning was clear. The person he least suspected may betray him, and there was no one he had suspected less than the protector. Indeed, now that he thought about it, why hadn’t the protector given him one of the light bombs if they were supposedly so effective against the Grak? Why hadn’t the protector told him earlier that singing would drive the Grak away? Surely he must have realized the Grak could attack George at any time, especially since they had already captured his father!
George sat motionless for over an hour, going over everything the protector had said and done in his mind, and looking at it all in a new light. It wasn’t pleasant, but he knew it had to be done. The Ziphon wouldn’t have given his warning for no reason. It was up to him to make use of it.
George finally dropped into a fitful, uneasy sleep just as the sun was peeking over the horizon.
A few hours later George was sitting on the curb in front of his house, waiting for the protector. The Ziphon’s visit and the call from Jiu Na now all seemed like a bad dream. With the sun shining so brightly and the day so beautiful, it was hard to think that he was facing great danger, and that the protector was not to be trusted. He had come to look at the protector in almost the same way as own father. His heart ached to trust him again, and yearned for the simple, innocent acceptance of the protector that he had felt only yesterday. But he could not ignore the Ziphon’s warning.
Time passed. There was no one in sight except Mr. Macalister down the street mowing his lawn. A flower sticking out of the grass nearby waved in the breeze. There was no dog or bird or butterfly in sight. What would the protector be today?
Until now, George had enjoyed trying to figure out what different shapes the protector could take. Now his ability to appear as something else seemed sinister and frightening. He could just as easily turn himself into a Grak, as anything else.
“You look glum today,” said a voice out of nowhere. George jumped, looking around wildly. The protector had done it again. There was nothing and nobody in sight, yet he knew the protector was there.
“I’m over here,” came the voice again. It seemed to be coming from the edge of the lawn, somewhere around the flower waving in the breeze. George took a step forward, his senses alert. Suddenly he realized there was no breeze, yet the flower kept waving.
“That’s right,” laughed the flower. “It’s me. Today I’m a Turubian walking flower. They look very much like your earth flowers, only of course their roots are more like feet and they can move around.”
George stooped down to examine the flower, and was amazed to see that it indeed had tiny legs and feet at its base, mostly hidden in the grass.
“That’s incredible!” said George without thinking. Then he stood up abruptly. He had to keep on his guard and not be taken in by the protector again.
“What’s wrong?” came the voice from the flower. “You seem tense. Did anything happen?”
George realized he was acting too worried, letting his suspicions show. Even if he didn’t feel like it, he had to try to act normal, to laugh and be himself.
“It’s nothing,” George said with a half hearted laugh. “I, uh … I just don’t feel too well today.”
“That’s too bad,” said the flower. Then with more excitement, the voice said, “but I’ve got important news! I’ve figured out part of the Grak’s plan! I’m still not sure how you and Jiu Na and the third person are going to stop them, but now I at least have an idea what they are up to.”
“The third person?” asked George curiously. “What do you mean?”
“Let’s go to my car and I’ll show you,” said the voice as the flower abruptly stood up and started to walk on its short, grey legs. “It’s too hard to explain without the proper tools.”
George followed along behind the flower. It was one of the most amazing and bizarre things he had ever seen, walking along as if it were a person, with its petals and leafs rising and falling at each step. George looked quickly all around. “Aren’t you worried someone will see you?” he asked.
The voice laughed. “I’m too low to the ground for anyone to notice,” said the protector. “And if they do see me, you can just tell them I’m your pet walking flower. That should satisfy them.”
“But there are no walking flowers on earth!” said George. “No one would believe me.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said the protector noncommittally. “There’s lots of strange creatures in this world, like the praying mantis, or flying fish. Just tell anyone who asks that I’m from Africa or Australia, or somewhere else with exotic, strange creatures.”
George just shook his head not knowing what to say.
They were nearing the corner, and George could see the car a short distance down the street, with Ant Number 4 sitting silently in the driver’s seat. Once again his heart ached to innocently accept and believe the protector as he had done only yesterday. He felt as if a cloud had settled over his mind, taking away all the fun and enjoyment he had experienced since he had come to know the protector.
“You must be sick,” said the flower. “You don’t seem your normal self. I hope it’s nothing catching. I haven’t had my flu shot this year.”
George tried to laugh. “Oh, it’s nothing serious,” he said quickly. “Just a little scratchy throat, but I’ll be fine. How’s Emberly today?” he asked, trying to change the subject.
“Good,” replied the protector. “She’s back to her old self, and is very excited about our trip to Portugal.”
“Portugal?” exclaimed George, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to stare at the walking flower. “We’re going to Portugal?”
“Yes,” replied the protector. “Not today of course, because of the time difference. We’ll have to meet earlier tomorrow, so we can go as early as possible. We want it to still be light there, even though it will be evening. But we need to go in order to confirm my theory about what the Grak are up to. If what I discovered is correct, we’ll find another fallen star there, and hopefully find someone else who found an Uth rock next to it, just like you and Jiu Na did.”
“Wow!” said George, not knowing what else to say. “How did you find that out?”
“Come into the car, and I’ll show you,” said the flower, starting to walk again. George followed behind, his mind racing with this news. Then he chided himself silently for getting excited about the protector’s new ‘discovery.’ Of course the protector knew what the Grak were up to, since he was in league with them! He knew their whole plan all along. He was just pretending to have made a new discovery, to make George think he was on his side.
When they reached the car, George held back in apprehension. Why did the protector want so bad for him to come into the car? Was it a trap?
“What’s wrong?” said the protector again, who had already hopped into the car on the passenger seat. There was concern in his voice. “You don’t seem your normal self today.”
George shook his head as if to clear it from a fog. He couldn’t let the protector know he suspected him, even if that meant walking into danger. The Ziphon had said he could still do something to help, and the Ziphon had seen the future. He simply had to trust that everything would be all right, and act more carefree and interested, like he had yesterday.
“Nothing’s wrong,” said George, opening the car door. “Just my throat. I’ll be all right.”
George could feel the protector looking at him curiously. Suddenly he realized that the flower must have eyes somewhere, although he couldn’t see them. It was so bizarre to be stared at by a flower that he laughed in spite of himself.
“What’s so funny?” asked the protector.
“Just that you were looking at me, and I can’t tell where your eyes are,” said George.
The protector laughed too. “They’re well hidden in Turubian flowers. Can you imagine if they weren’t? What a sight that would be—a flower with big, staring eyes.” With another laugh, the protector jumped off the edge of the passenger seat and instantly changed in size, so that he now looked like a small weed on the floor of the car. “Come on,” came a faint voice as the flower walked toward the tiny door. “But don’t say anything until you shrink, or you’ll split my eardrums.”
George followed silently, leaning forward over the edge of the seat. Once again his stomach turned upside down as he felt himself suddenly shrinking. Then he was on the floor of the car, with Ant Number 4 towering to his left. The protector had already disappeared through the door.
George ran to the door and peered inside. He saw the protector, now returned to his normal, flabby self, taking the cover off a globe of the earth.
“Let me show you what I found,” said the protector. “It’s pretty amazing. Only the Grak would have come up with a plan so bold.”
George came over and looked at the globe. It looked quite ordinary, and seemed out of place surrounded by the protector’s other specialized equipment.
“There’s nothing too exciting about this globe,” said the protector with a sheepish grin. “I bought it at Wal-Mart. But come over here and let me show you what gave me my first clue about what the Grak are up to.”
George followed the protector over to the View All. Emberly bounced up against his leg, and he smiled and patted her. It seemed odd to think that yesterday she had been a human girl, yet now she was a furry little fuzzball, acting similar to a cat.
“Here it is,” said the protector, clicking several buttons on what looked like a remote control. “It’s a commercial I saw while watching the 6:00 o’clock news. Watch.”
Suddenly a view of space appeared on the screen, and an announcer’s voice said, “Are you involved in the interplanetary shipping of heated or chilled goods? Are you tired of having to send your frozen or heated goods through Fozulia? Would you like a more direct shipping route through sector 9? Well, your lucky day has arrived! Momp Enterprises is proud to announce the opening of a new frozen and heated transfer planet in sector 9! It’s perfect for all your shipment needs!”
The space scene zoomed in on a planetary system with nine planets, and highlighted the third planet with flashing orange arrows.
“This new non-rotating planet in sector 9 is almost exactly half way between Ningassa and Blutoric, and is a perfect stopping point for shipment of your goods! Leave them there for a day or half a century with no worries! They’ll be perfectly chilled or heated according to your needs. Just think—no more 30 billion light year trip out of the way to Fuzolia! No more loss of goods for lack of proper chilling or heating by careless space freighters! Call Momp Enterprises and reserve your spot today!”
The screen went dead. The protector looked triumphantly at George, who stared back with a blank look in his eyes.
“Fascinating, isn’t it?” said the protector knowingly. “Incredibly brazen to show as a commercial on the 6:00 o’clock news. But the Grak are always doing rash things like that.”
“I don’t understand,” said George slowly. “What does it mean?”
“Here, let me show you,” said the protector, as he pushed more buttons on the remote. The zoomed image of the third planet reappeared on the screen.
“Do you see that solar system and the highlighted planet?” said the protector.
“Sure,” said George.
“That’s earth!” said the Protector in triumph. “The Grak are advertising your earth as an interplanetary storage planet, for frozen or heated goods!”
George looked at the protector uncomprehendingly.
“Don’t you see?” said the protector excitedly. “The commercial said that this new storage planet is ‘non-rotating!’ But your earth is rotating like crazy! You go through one complete rotation every 24 hours! As long as earth is rotating it’s no good to store frozen goods except at the north and south poles. But that’s too small of an area for large storage. And there’s nowhere on earth in its present condition to store a large amount of heated goods. But if you could somehow stop the earth’s rotation, the side of the earth exposed to the sun would quickly rise in temperature to well over 400°, while temperatures on the other side—a side that would no longer see the sun at all—would plummet so far below freezing that it would be perfect for frozen storage!”
“You mean,” said George incredulously, “the Grak are planning to stop earth’s rotation? In order to turn it into a big hot and cold storage place?”
“Exactly like a warehouse,” replied the protector affirmatively. “Of course, they won’t completely stop the rotation, since the earth still circles the sun once a year, and they have to keep it in the same position relative to the sun at all times. In other words, the part of earth facing the sun must continue to face the sun all year long. So earth’s rotation will be slowed so that it rotates only once on its axis every year, instead of once a day like it does now. Only in that way will the side facing the sun continue facing that way at all time.”
“And that’s why the Ziphon said the earth would turn to fire and ice unless the Grak were stopped!” said George excitedly.
“Exactly!” said the protector.
“But how could the Grak stop the earth’s rotation?” asked George, his suspicions of the Protector temporarily forgotten. “Wouldn’t that take a tremendous amount of energy?”
“It would,” replied the protector, leading George over to the Wal-Mart globe again. “But energy in such large amounts is not unheard of in other parts of the galaxy, although so much power probably seems impossible to you earthlings. Of course, having the energy is not enough. As an initial matter, before you use the energy to stop the rotation, you have to have a way to harness and control the energy, and grab onto the earth with it. That’s where the fallen stars come in.”
“See here?” said the protector, pointing to the part of California on the globe where George lived. “This is where we are now, and this is where your fallen star is. Almost exactly 1/3 of the way around the globe to the west is Xhenxou, China, where Jiu Na lives and where another fallen star is located.”
George saw that it was true. The distance from his home to Xhenxhou, China did look to be about 1/3 of the way around the earth.
“Now, if we keep going from there another 1/3 of the way around the earth, or if we go 1/3 of the way around the earth to the east from your home in California, we come to Portugal, where I think a third fallen star must have landed. That would make three grabbing or hooking points to latch onto the earth, each of which is about the same distance from each other. That’s why we have to go to Portugal, to confirm that my suspicions are correct.”
George looked at the globe for a minute. Portugal was indeed another 1/3 of the way around the globe. “But how do the fallen stars grab onto the earth?” he asked. “Aren’t they just like rocks, sitting on its surface?”
“No,” said the protector, beaming proudly. “After I saw the news report last night and then discovered this on the globe, I went out again to the fallen star, even though it was dark. I did some underground measurements and found to my amazement that a root has grown out of the fallen star and already has penetrated hundreds of miles straight into the earth! Actually there are multiple roots that have split in all directions, thousands of them, and they continue to grow at an incredible rate. I don’t know how in the world they are growing, but they are. I suspect the same type of root system is growing beneath the fallen stars in China and Portugal as well. Once the root growth is complete, the fallen stars will form a perfect anchor. A beam of energy from the Grak’s spaceship directly north of the earth will grab the hooks on all three fallen stars and hold the earth in place. This will apparently stop the earth’s rotation.”
George stared at the globe, not knowing what to say. The plan seemed too far fetched and incredible to believe. Could the protector be telling the truth? But how could that be, since he clearly had to be the person George least suspected? What was this all about, anyway?
Finally, George said slowly, “So after its rotation stops, the earth will be too hot or cold for people to live on, depending on which side they’re on?”
“Actually,” responded the protector, “nothing will survive long enough to be destroyed by the heat or cold. When the beam of energy grabs onto the fallen stars and the rotation is stopped, the force of arrested movement will be so powerful that everything on the surface of the earth will be destroyed within hours. There will be terrible earthquakes and land slides, such as this earth has never seen. Nothing will be able to withstand the sudden stop in rotation. I know it sounds odd, but everything on your planet is accustomed to the earth’s constant movement of rotation. Everything will be thrown into total chaos when it stops.”
The horror of the plan made George’s skin crawl. Could this be true? Was the protector revealing the actual plan of the Grak? It did seem to fit with what the Ziphon had said about the earth being in danger of fire and ice. But why had the protector told all this to George, since he was apparently in league with the Grak? Was this the whole truth, or only part of the story? And even if it were all true, what could he and Jiu Na and some unknown person in Portugal do to stop it? Indeed, what could anyone do?
As if reading his thoughts, the protector said, “I’ve already notified the intergalactic police of what I suspect the Grak are up to. They’re on there way here now with a search warrant to go through the Grak ship you and Jiu Na saw in space above the earth.”
“The intergalactic police?” said George in surprise. “You mean there’s a police force out there in space?”
The protector laughed. “There sure is, and they’re very effective. But like your police, they can’t do anything until they have all their proof and evidence gathered, and finding such evidence is uncertain since the Grak are good at hiding things. The main evidence they will be looking for are energy turbines strong enough to grab onto the earth, since the power and energy the Grak need to carry out their plain will require a huge power source that can’t easily be hidden. It probably wouldn’t be too hard for them to hide your father and Jiu Na’s father somewhere, but hiding those turbines will be impossible.”
“Then they should be discovered!” said George. “The police will stop them!”
“Maybe, and maybe not,” replied the protector. “Like I said, finding the evidence is only the first step. Then they have to present the evidence through the court system. It will probably take weeks or months for this to happen, even with good evidence of wrongdoing. If the Grak succeed at dragging out this process until this planet is destroyed, then of course the evidence will be meaningless since the destruction of earth will be all the proof that anybody needs—but that will be too late to save your people. And even then, with unbeatable proof of wrongdoing, the whole issue will move into political debates in the senate, which could last years until it is resolved. Indeed, that’s exactly what has happened with Emberly’s planet where everyone was destroyed.”
“You’re kidding!” exclaimed George in amazement. “How could anyone let this happen without doing something about it?”
“Because of fear of the Grak,” replied the protector. “The Grak wanted Emberly’s planet as a spaceport—a glorified space vehicle parking lot, if you will. Before anyone knew what they were up to they had turned every inhabitant on the planet to stone, except Emberly. The planet is still untouched while debates and investigations go on and on in the senate. But everyone suspects that in the end, the government will cave in and let the Grak have the planet, in spite of the horror of what they did to get it.”
“Of course, the real goal of the Grak is not just to build a spaceport on Emberly’s planet, or to turn earth into a storage planet,” continued the protector. “By themselves, these are minor trade issues. But they know that if they come to control enough of the important economic planets and trade routes in the universe, they will become economically unbeatable. With all the power that money brings, they can then try to take over political control and obtain total domination. That’s their real, long range plan.”
“But since everyone knows it, why don’t they do something?” asked George. “How could they let it happen when the Grak are so obviously in the wrong?”
“Because no one wants to go to war against the Grak,” answered the protector. “And that’s what they have to do to really stop them. It’s easier to appease them and give in to them where small worlds like yours and Emberlys are lost, rather than to openly confront them and fight them. Its easier to pretend they have no long range plan of domination. No one will take responsibility to bring the Grak in line. The same thing has happened on your planet. When Japan invaded China in the 1930s, no other government tried very hard to stop them. A lot of other governments complained, but no one stopped them—because they knew they’d have to go to war to do it.”
George was silent for a moment, pondering on what the protector had just said. How could any civilized society allow such things to happen? Did no one care for their fellow creatures? But on the other hand, was the protector even telling him the truth? Could he be trusted?
Were he and Jiu Na wrong in suspecting the Protector? What he has just explained sounded true enough. Indeed, a part of George yearned and ached to believe it and to trust the protector again. But the Ziphon had given him a warning. Who else would they least suspect, other than the protector? And if this was so, what was the true meaning of what the Protector had just told him? George’s head was beginning to ache with all the unanswered questions.
George suddenly felt something vibrate in his pocket. He was about to cry out when he remembered he had changed his cell phone to vibrate rather than to ring.
He pulled it out of his pocket, and could see by the number displayed that his mother was calling.
“George?” came her voice over the phone. “Where are you?”
“I’m right down the street,” said George. “Not far from home.”
“Well, maybe you’d better come home,” said his mother. “Janet keeps insisting that you were gone for hours yesterday without permission, although I don’t remember any such thing. Do you?”
In spite of the stress he was feeling from the Grak, the protector, and everything else going on, George nearly laughed out loud. “How could I have been gone for so long and you not remember it?” he asked in reply.
“That’s what I keep telling Janet,” said his mother with a sigh. “Well, come home soon, please. Maybe you can talk some sense into her.”
‘Not likely,’ thought George to himself. To his mother he said, “O.k., I’ll be there soon.” He put the phone back in his pocket.
“Those happy memory pills work pretty well, don’t they?” said the protector with a sly grin.
“Yeah,” said George with a smile.
“I gave one to Emberly this morning,” said the protector. “She was starting to fret about meeting the Grak again. Now she’s happy as a lark.”
Emberly was rolling and bouncing happily about the room, seemingly without a care in the world. George gave the protector a sharp look. If he had slipped Emberly a pill unaware, could he have given one to George? Or maybe he had been given a different kind of pill that altered his thinking, or made it so he couldn’t remember something the protector didn’t want him to remember! George shivered. He had to make sure he didn’t eat or drink anything the protector offered him from now on.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” asked the protector again. “You seem tense today. You’re not your old self.”
George pretended to laugh it off. “It’s just my throat,” he said. Then, trying to change the subject, he asked, “what about the Uth stone? How does it fit into this whole plan of the Grak?”
The protector frowned. “I’m not sure,” he said slowly. “That’s the one thing I haven’t figured out yet. My suspicion is that the fallen stars had to be positioned just right in order to work properly, so the planet would not break completely apart when it stops rotation. So I would guess that the Uth stones were used somehow to guide the fallen stars to the proper landing spot. After that, they were probably of no further use.”
George scratched his head, wondering. Was there something about the Uth stones the protector was not telling him? Were they really only to guide the fallen stars to a safe landing, or did they have some other purpose? George could hardly stand the suspicion anymore. He needed some air.
“I’d better go,” he said, turning toward the door. He needed to call Jiu Na, to let her know what was happening. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then. First thing in the morning.”
“Right,” said the protector, looking after him in concern. “Be as early as you can. I don’t want to get to Portugal after nightfall, since it will be too hard to search for the fallen star in the dark.”
George pushed open the door, turned to wave to the protector, then stepped through and was gone. The protector stared after him with a worried look on his face.
An hour later, George was in his room. Janet had nearly attacked him when he arrived home, wildly repeating her story that he had been gone for hours yesterday. George’s mother just stood in the background shaking her head, saying she didn’t remember any of it. George, remained silent, only saying that he couldn’t see how he could have stayed out half the day and their mother not remember it. Finally, Janet had thrown up her hands and left the room in disgust.
Now, George was pacing back and forth in his room, trying to remember everything the protector had told him. He didn’t want to leave anything out when he called Jiu Na.
Finally, he put the ring in his ear and, feeling rather silly, said, “I want to talk to Jiu Na.”
He waited in silence for a moment. Suddenly Jiu Na’s voice sounded in his ear.
“George?! Is that you?” He could sense the worry in her voice. He realized she must have been afraid the protector was calling her instead of George, and didn’t know what to say to him.
“Yeah, it’s me,” said George. “I just left the protector a little while ago. He wants me to go with him to Portugal tomorrow.”
“Portugal!” cried Jiu Na. “Why does he want you to go? Do you think it’s a trap?”
As briefly as possible, George explained what the protector had told him about the Grak and their scheme to stop the earth’s rotation, and how they needed to go to Portugal to verify that there was another fallen star there.
“But do you think he’s telling the truth?” asked Jiu Na when George had finished. “What about what the Ziphon warned us?”
“I know,” replied George glumly. “I was suspicious of him all day today. I was so jumpy he kept asking me what was wrong. I think he might suspect something.”
“That’s bad,” said Jiu Na. “I don’t think you should go with him tomorrow. You’ll be half a world away from anyone you know. He could be taking you right to the Grak.”
“But I ran into the Grak right here the other day! I don’t need to go half way around the world to find them,” said George. “And if I don’t go, how will we find out what he and the Grak are really up to? And how will we find out how we can help? The Ziphon did say we could help, although I don’t know how.”
“I don’t either,” said Jiu Na in a worried voice. “I’ve been thinking about it all day, and I just don’t see how two kids half a world apart can make any difference. We need help from someone. But now we can’t trust the protector and I don’t know where else to turn.”
“Neither do I,” replied George. He paused. “I’ve been thinking. Maybe we were wrong about the protector being in league with the Grak. After all, we don’t know that for sure. We’re just guessing, based on what the Ziphon said.”
“That’s just what I’ve been afraid of,” replied Jiu Na. “I thought you might start to think the protector is on our side if you kept meeting him and going along with him. If you spend time with him, he won’t seem like an enemy. He’ll convert you to his side. I’m not around him, so that won’t happen to me.”
“But we could be wrong,” objected George again.
“I suppose, but then how do you explain what the Ziphon said?” asked Jiu Na pointedly. “Who else do both of us know? The Ziphon gave you and I the same message, so it has to be someone we both know. And there’s only the protector and Emberly, and she’s already shown that she’s not in league with the Grak. So it has to be him!”
“I guess you’re right,” said George sadly. “I guess I just wish it wasn’t so. He’s so nice – not like the Grak at all.”
“That’s what makes him all the more dangerous,” replied Jiu Na. “That’s probably why they’re using him. I don’t think you should go to Portugal, George. Make up some excuse. Let him go alone.”
“I don’t know,” replied George slowly, thinking hard. “We’ve got to find out more than we know now.”
There was silence for a moment, each lost in their own thoughts. Finally, George said, “I think I’d better go with him tomorrow. I’ll stay close to Emberly, since she seems to know how to protect herself against the Grak.”
“I knew you’d decide to go,” said Jiu Na sadly. “I’m half way around the world, so there’s nothing I can do to stop you. But be careful! And call me if there’s any trouble. I don’t know what I could do, but maybe I could help somehow.”
After they had said good-bye, George stood for a long time in his room, looking out the window at the street. It was a sunny day, and the world looked peaceful. It seemed impossible that something so sinister as the Grak and their diabolical plan might soon destroy everything.
DoorJam came into the room and jumped up on George’s bed. George sat down next to him and started scratching under his chin. DoorJam purred appreciatively, twisting around into a better position to be scratched. “I don’t know what to do,” said George to the cat, continuing to scratch him softly. “I’m supposed to do something, and I don’t know what to do.”
George took out the pouch containing the Uth stone. Pulling it out, he held it up to the light. Everything looked normal through it. While it was still cold and caused his hand to tingle, it did nothing else. George placed it on his dresser then concentrated his mind, willing the stone to show him whether the protector was in league with the Grak. Nothing happened. For several days now, the stone had done nothing at all.
George put it back into the pouch, and dropped it in his pocket again. “What am I to do?” he asked DoorJam again. “How can a kid like me make a difference, or stop anyone as powerful as the Grak?”
The cat looked up at him with its large green eyes. George smiled sadly. He could imagine what Door Jam would tell him if he could talk. He would just say, ‘You humans worry too much. A good scratch under the chin and a little food is all that you need. If you were a cat like me, you’d have no problems at all!’
The next morning George was out in front of his house early, waiting for the protector. It had been a hard night. He had spent hours tossing and turning fitfully in his bed before finally dropping off into an uneasy sleep, filled with dreams of roots growing through the earth, and of the protector turning into a dog-like creature like the Grak.
That morning he had hardly eaten any breakfast, and his mother had threatened to take him to the doctor. When Janet had suggested the doctor check him for signs of brain waves, they had gotten into an argument. For once his mother had been glad to get him out of the house, and had told him to go out and find something to do until lunchtime. Ever since taking her happy memory pill, she had been less protective and less inclined to call and check up on him all the time. Strangely enough, George found himself almost missing her extreme over-protectiveness, especially now that he could no longer trust the protector.
George looked up and down the street. No one was in sight. In spite of his suspicions and worries about the protector, George was curious about what he would appear as today. He was determined not to be fooled like he had been for the last several days.
George paced back and forth on the sidewalk in front of his house. There was no sign of anything unusual, and no flowers waving in the breeze today. Absently, George kicked a rock that was lying on the sidewalk, sending it skittering off into the grass.
“Hey!” a voice suddenly yelled, making George jump. “What did you do that for? Would you like me to kick you?”
George looked wildly all around. There was no one in sight.
“Try kicking someone your own size, next time,” came the voice again. It seemed to be coming from the rock he had kicked onto the grass.
George bent down to look at the rock. Surely the voice couldn’t have come from it. It looked so ordinary. “Good morning, George,” the rock suddenly said in a clear voice.
George jumped back in alarm. “You’re a rock!” he said without thinking.
“That’s correct,” said the rock. “Today, I am a Correlian rock creature. They look just like earth rocks and are very tough, so your little kick didn’t actually hurt me at all. Whenever I feel like getting down to earth, I turn myself into a Correlian rock creature. It’s the only time dirt tastes good, you know.”
“You eat dirt?” asked George in amazement.
“Correlian rock creatures do,” replied the protector. “It tastes great, especially this rich, black dirt you have on earth. It’s just like chocolate. You should try it sometime.”
George frowned in distaste. Eating dirt didn’t sound very appealing.
Then to George’s complete amazement, the rock suddenly stood up and started to move. He could see that it had two stubby little legs on which it could waddle along at a surprisingly fast pace.
“So,” said the rock with an air of determination. “Today, we’re off to Portugal. Are you ready?”
“I guess so,” said George, walking alongside the rock while looking furtively in all directions to make sure no one was watching them. He felt a bit embarrassed at walking down the sidewalk with a waddling rock.
“Aren’t you a bit worried about being seen?” he asked the protector, just as he had done the day before when the protector was a flower.
“Nonsense,” replied the protector. “Anyone who saw us would just think I’m yours. Haven’t you ever heard of a pet rock before?”
“But rocks don’t walk around on this planet,” said George.
“True enough,” laughed the protector. “Don’t worry, though. I’m too low to the ground for anyone to notice me. I once attended one of your football games in a 30,000 seat stadium this way and no one noticed me at all. People don’t look down expecting to see rocks walking around, you know.”
They had rounded the corner and George could see the protector’s car with Ant Number 4 seated silently in the driver’s seat. Suddenly the protector said, “I got a disappointing report from the intergalactic police. They searched the Grak ship and found no sign of a power source that could possibly stop the earth’s rotation. In fact, they searched through your entire solar system and found no such energy source hidden anywhere. It’s a complete mystery how the Grak could hide something that big and powerful, but somehow they have.”
“Did they find my father?” asked George hopefully, although he already knew what the answer would be.
“I’m afraid not,” said the protector. “There was no sign of him or Jiu Na’s father. In fact, since they found no evidence and their search warrant has expired, they had to pull off and leave the Grak alone for now, since there’s nothing to show they’re doing anything wrong.”
George wondered if this was true. Had the intergalactic police really been notified and searched the Grak ship? If so, had they really failed to find his father? How could they search and find no evidence?
“We’ll go to the same spot as last time and set up the transporter,” said the protector as they approached the car.
“Are you sure it’s safe to go back there and set it up?” asked George, relieved to change the subject. “What about the Grak?”
“I don’t think they’ll bother us again,” said the protector. “Like I said before, I don’t think they expected us that day. We caught them by surprise.”
George scratched his head, wondering again if that were really so, and if there was some hidden reason the protector wanted to set up the transporter at the same spot again. Then he frowned and wiped his hand across his brow. He had to watch himself today. He couldn’t let the protector think he was suspicious of him. He tried to force a smile, even though he didn’t feel like smiling. Suspicion was certainly a heavy burden. Suspecting the protector was wearing him out.
They had reached the car, and to George’s surprise, the protector leaped off the ground and through the open window onto the passenger’s seat. “Corelian rock creatures have very impressive jumping abilities,” the protector said shyly. Then the protector hopped toward the floor and instantly shrunk to a tiny pebble.
“Hop into the back seat,” came the barely audible voice from the pebble. “I’ve already told Ant Number 4 where to go, so we’ll start right away. I’m just going to go in and transform and I’ll be right back.” Then the pebble disappeared through the tiny door.
George got in the back seat, swinging the car door shut behind him. Ant Number 4 immediately put the car in gear and started moving forward. In no time they were on the outskirts of town, approaching the field where the fallen star was located. The thick bushes that the Grak had brought with them were still all over the place, greatly changing the appearance of the open field that had existed before.
George was so busy looking out the window that he didn’t notice when the protector came back out and appeared on the front seat. “Looks like we’re almost there,” said the protector. When George glanced at him, his eyes opened wide in surprise. A swarthy man sat in the front seat of the car. He sported a black mustache and had olive colored skin. “Today, I am a Portuguese gentleman,” said the man. “I’ll rig the transporter to not only take us to Portugal but also to transform you and Ant Number 4 and Emberly into a Portuguese appearance as well, when we go through. It’s still best to not arouse any suspicion.”
The protector pulled something from his pocket. “Here,” he said, handing a stick of gum to George. “It’s Portuguese. Tastes just like rice and beans.”
George took the gum silently. What was he to do with it? He didn’t dare chew it, for fear it might be something like a happy memory pill, and make him forget things, or alter his mind in some way. But if he didn’t chew it, he wouldn’t understand what the people in Portugal were saying.
The car pulled to a stop. Still worrying about what to do about the gum, George followed the protector out of the car. He stood silently watching while the protector set up the transporter door with its surrounding cloud of gauze-like substance. George could see small areas where the gauze looked like it had been patched, apparently to fix the rips caused by the bramble bushes they had run into after their trip to China.
Suddenly, George was hit hard in the back of his legs, so that his knees buckled. “Got you by surprise, didn’t I?” came a girl’s voice behind him.
Looking around, George saw Emberly standing there, a mischievous look on her face. She pointed at his knees. “Your legs bend in a funny way.” She laughed. “They only bend backwards.”
“Now, Emberly, don’t be rude,” said the protector. “That’s the way all human legs bend.”
“Not mine,” said Emberly happily. “I would never let my legs bend backwards. I think its better if they bend in all directions!”
“Is that so?” replied the protector, with a wink at George. “Let’s see you bend your leg forward then.”
With a smile on her face, Emberly held out her leg, with her foot pointed up to the sky. She swiveled it around in the air for a minute. The smile slowly disappeared from her face while she stared at her leg. Straining, she tried to bend it forward, then sideways, then forward again. Finally, she bent it backwards. As she did so, she screamed.
“It only bends backward!” She cried. “It’s just like his! I’m deformed!”
“There’s nothing to be worried about,” said the protector calmly. “Human legs work just fine by only bending backwards.”
A look of horror covered Emberly’s face. “I’m deformed!” she cried again. Then she quickly hopped in the car and covered her face with her hands.
In a low voice, the protector said, “Praetorians don’t have legs, you know, since they just roll everywhere like a ball. It’s taking her awhile to get used to human appearances. Next time she’ll be making fun of your arms or your feet or your head.”
Before George had a chance to say anything in reply, the protector announced, “We’re all set. Hop in, and we’re off to Portugal!”
As the protector and George got into the car, he noticed that Emberly pulled as far away from him as she could, her face still covered by her hands. She didn’t move as Ant Number 4 began to drive forward toward the transporter door.
As they went through the transporter door, George again had the strange sensation of flashing color and visible sound. And then they were on the other side.
The sun was still shining, although it had shifted position so that it was on the western horizon, and looked like it would soon set for the night. They were on a dirt lane in the countryside, among gently rolling hills dotted with small cottages and occasional trees. No one was in sight. Emberly was sitting up straight, looking curiously around at the countryside, having apparently forgotten about the way human legs bend.
“Here we are!” announced the protector. “I don’t see a fallen star anywhere, but I didn’t expect we would. I set the coordinates so that we would come through within a mile of where it should have landed. We’ll just have a look around, and I’m sure we’ll run into it. It’s got to be here someplace.”
Ant Number 4 pulled the car slowly forward along the lane. They were approaching the crest of a small hill when the protector told him to stop. “I don’t want to draw too much attention to ourselves,” he said. “In the country like this there are few travelers, so the people will notice us. It’s not like China, where the crowds shielded us.”
“Wait here,” he commanded, as he got out of the car. “I’ll walk to the crest of the hill and see what I can see.” George noticed that he was carrying a pair of binoculars.
They watched as the protector walked up the hill ahead of them. Suddenly Emberly pulled on George’s hair.
“Your fur doesn’t feel very soft,” she said in a loud voice. “And it’s hard to pull out.”
“It’s not fur, its hair,” said George grumpily. “And you’re not supposed to pull it out. It hurts when you pull it.”
Emberly paid no attention. She suddenly got out of the car.
“I’m bored,” she announced to no one in particular. “I’m going to take a look around.” She suddenly started to walk across the field next to the road.
George hopped out. “Wait!” he cried. “The protector said to wait here. You might get lost.”
Emberly paid no attention, and kept walking. George looked furtively at Ant Number 4, but he just sat silently, staring straight ahead as always. The protector had disappeared over the crest of the hill.
George wasn’t sure what to do. He knew it was probably safest to stay at the car, but he couldn’t just let Emberly wander off. And he hadn’t forgotten his resolve to stay close by her, for protection from the Grak. “Come back!” he yelled after her.
She paid no attention. She had crossed over the crest of the hill on their left, and was walking down the other side. She would soon be out of sight. Suddenly George cried “Hold on!” and started to run after her. “Wait for me.”
Emberly turned. Seeing him coming, she started to run. She had a mischievous smile on her face, and quickly disappeared over the hill.
George followed as rapidly as he could, still trying to look inconspicuous and keep his eyes open for anything unusual. Since the last encounter he and Emberly had had with the Grak he felt a bit uneasy, wondering if they might run into trouble again.
Crossing over the crest of the hill, George saw a small cottage in a clearing below. Emberly was standing in front of it, talking to an old lady. George hesitated, not sure whether to go down to them or not. After a moment, the lady took Emberly’s hand and took her in the cottage door.
“Wait!” cried George, running down the hill as fast as he could. When he reached the cottage door he knocked rapidly, then stood panting on the doorstep. It was an old cottage, with a dirty stucco surface, and what looked like hand carved wooden window borders and a tile roof. There were chickens pecking their way across the yard nearby.
The door opened. The old lady’s wrinkled eyes seemed to smile down at George. “Gostaria de entrar e ter uns biscoitos com sua amiga?” she asked.
In panic, George remembered that he hadn’t used the protector’s Portuguese chewing gum. He pulled it out rapidly, then stopped. What if it were drugged? If the protector was not on their side, there was no telling what he might do. George looked back at the lady, not knowing how to respond.
“Tenha uma problema?” she said with a worried look in her eye. George could only nod.
Suddenly Emberly appeared in the doorway and held out half a stick of gum to him. She had apparently ripped her Portuguese gum in half. In relief, George took it and popped it into his mouth, certain that the protector would not give Emberly drugged gum since there would be no need to do so.
“Is there a problem?” the lady repeated.
“No,” George replied quickly, knowing that what sounded to him like English was in fact now Portuguese. “I just came to see where my friend was.”
The lady broke into a broad smile. “Come in, come in,” she gestured. “Have some cookies with your friend.”
George entered a small room that doubled as a living room and kitchen. It had an old television on a shelf opposite a lumpy old couch. A worn kitchen table stood in the middle of the room. On the opposite wall was a small sink and range for cooking. The room was very small, and the crowded furniture made it seem even smaller.
“Sit down, sit down,” said the woman. “Would you like some goat’s milk?” she asked.
George stared at her blankly. Suddenly Emberly laughed. “I tried some and it tastes terrible,” she said smiling brightly. “Go ahead and try it.”
The old lady didn’t seem troubled at all by Emberly’s rudeness, but still stood smiling at George. “No thank you,” he said. He picked up a cookie and bit into it while holding his gum in his cheek. The cookie dissolved in his mouth with a delicious flavor. “Wow,” he said without thinking. “These are good.”
“I think so too,” said Emberly gulping a cookie whole. “Donna Tereza made them herself.”
“They are my mother’s recipe,” said the old lady. “And my grandmother’s before that. Have more.” She pushed the plate full of cookies under George’s nose.
He didn’t need much encouragement and picked up another. Emberly wasn’t as polite, and grabbed several at once. After gulping down another one, she suddenly said, “Donna Tereza has a fallen star in her back yard just like the one by your house.”
George froze in mid chew. “You told her about the fallen star?” he asked Emberly.
“Sure,” replied Emberly casually. “Why not? That’s why we’re here, isn’t it? So we can find it?”
“Well, yes” said George hesitating. “But I don’t know if we should tell everyone about it.”
“Why not?” asked Emberly curiously.
“It is not a secret,” said Donna Tereza suddenly. “When it fell a week ago I called the police, and they came to look at it. But they were not impressed, and they never came again. No one has shown any interest in it, except for you and the terrible dog-like creatures that came the other night.”
George nearly gagged on his cookie. In a rough voice he said, “dog-like creatures? You say they came here?”
“Yes,” replied Donna Tereza. “And my lost husband too, who has been gone for a year.”
George stared at her in shock. The Grak had come here! And they had apparently brought her husband, who must have disappeared about the same time as George’s father and Jiu Na’s father! Before George could ask any of the hundreds of questions that were flooding through his mind, there was a knock at the door.
“My goodness!” said Donna Tereza, bustling over to open it. “I’m certainly having a lot of visitors today.” As she swung the door open, George could see the protector standing on the threshold.
“Good afternoon,” he said politely, removing his hat. Seeing George and Emberly inside he added, “I see I’ve come to the right place.”
“Are these your children?” asked Donna Tereza. Without waiting for an answer, she stepped aside and said, “Please come in and have a cookie.”
“These are not actually my children, but we are traveling together,” the protector replied, as he entered the room and took a seat at the small table. “Well,” he said with a smile to George and Emberly, “it looks like you two wandered off to the right place. I suppose you know already the third fallen star is in the back yard. I saw it from the hilltop, and have already taken my pictures and measurements of it.”
“Yes,” answered Emberly, her mouth full of cookie. “This is Donna Tereza.” She pointed rudely at the old lady. “She makes the best cookies in the world. But don’t try the goat’s milk.”
The protector laughed. Donna Tereza filled another plate with cookies and pushed it under the protector’s nose. “Now you are complete,” she said. “He told me three would come, although I didn’t expect you so soon.”
“Someone told you we were coming?” blurted George.
“The same Ziphon that has visited you and Jiu Na, no doubt,” said the protector. “I presume he came last night?”
“Yes,” said Donna Tereza. “He was a funny little thing, with a rough voice.” Her face clouded. “He came the first time right after I found the clear rock by the fallen star, and said something about fire and ice, and about my helping protect the earth, of all things. When he came last night, he just said you would come, and that you would have important things to tell me, especially about the dog-like creatures that came here two nights ago and nearly killed me!”
Only Emberly seemed unmoved by this sudden statement by Donna Tereza. She continued to munch on cookies as if there were no cares in the world.
“Could you show us the clear rock you found?” asked the protector. Donna Tereza reached to a small shelf over the sink and took down a tiny box. Inside they could all see another Uth stone, exactly like the ones of George and Jiu Na, sparkling in the late afternoon sunlight which was flowing through the window. “I put it in this box and have left it above my sink since I found it. It is a very strange rock, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” said George. His voice sounded distant, as if it were coming from someone else. “Has it done anything strange, or helped you in some way?”
“No,” said Donna Tereza, with a curious look at George. “Of course I haven’t taken it out of the box since I found it. Was it supposed to do something?”
George shrugged, not knowing what to say.
“Please, tell us what happened when the dog-like creatures came the other night,” said the protector. “Then we will explain why we are here, and what’s going on.”
“Well,” said Donna Tereza uncomfortably, “it isn’t very pleasant. They came just as it was getting dark. There were five of them. I saw them through my window and was frightened, but knew I couldn’t try to escape or they would capture me. I’m not very fast on my feet anymore, you know.”
“So I stayed by the window, watching them.” She shuddered. “They were horrible creatures. For a time they stayed out by the star. They seemed to be taking measurements of it. Then they came to the back door by the window. I had locked it, but they pushed it open anyway. When I tried to run they bound me with whips. I can’t describe why, but when they came in the house, darkness and cold came in with them, and despair too. I thought I was lost.”
Donna Tereza shuddered, and pulled her shawl tighter across her shoulders. George could understand just how she felt, and could almost feel the terror that she must have experienced here all alone.
“Then all of a sudden Jose was here,” she said. “Jose is my husband. He disappeared one year ago.”
George and the protector exchanged meaningful looks. First George’s father, then Jiu Na’s father, and now Jose. Each disappeared one year ago.
“He looked so sad,” continued Donna Tereza. “He didn’t say a word, even when I begged him to talk to me. At first I was overjoyed to see him in spite of the terrible creatures. Then it became clear that he was their prisoner.”
“So, he never said anything to you at all?” asked George intently, staring at Donna Tereza.
“Not a word,” she replied. “I think he wanted to, but couldn’t. The horrible creatures didn’t say much either, except threats of how they would hurt me if I tried to escape.”
“Didn’t your husband communicate with you in any way?” asked the protector urgently. “Since you were married to him so many years before he disappeared, you must have been able to pick up some type of message from him.”
“Only that he was very sad, and was their prisoner,” replied Donna Tereza. “He did nothing at all, except take my hand and draw pictures on it. The same as I have dreamed him do over the past year.”
“I’ve had dreams like that too!” exclaimed George. “My father will come in my window during the night and draw or write on my hand. He never says a word.”
“Your father?” asked Donna Tereza, puzzled.
“He disappeared one year ago, just like Jose,” said George.
“Was there nothing else?” interrupted the protector. “Didn’t Jose communicate at all? Was there no sign to you, or anything?”
“No,” replied Donna Tereza. “After a time they all left. I begged my husband to stay but the awful creatures pulled him away from me. They went over the hill too fast for me to follow. When I reached the top they were gone.” She looked at them curiously, with sad eyes. “I only hope that you have good news for me, and can explain what all this means.”
“Donna Tereza, why don’t you sit down,” said the protector slowly. “We have quite a story to tell you.”
For the next few minutes the protector told the story of George’s fallen star and the Uth stone he had found, of their trip to China and meeting Jiu Na, and of discovering the Grak’s scheme to stop the earth’s rotation. While listening, Donna Tereza raised her eyebrows and rocked gently back and forth in her chair, but said nothing.
When the protector had finished she rubbed her hands together in worry and frowned. “What are we to do?” she asked sadly. “I am an old woman, and George and this Chinese girl are just children. What can we possibly do to stop such powerful creatures?”
“We’re still trying to figure that out,” replied the protector. “The Ziphon you met told George and Jiu Na that there was something they could do, to stop the world from turning to fire and ice.”
Donna Tereza nodded. “He said the same to me, on his first visit.”
“Then there is hope!” said the protector firmly.
“I suppose so,” said Donna Tereza, “although like I said, I don’t know what we can do. Shouldn’t we tell the authorities?”
“I’m afraid there is little they could do,” said the protector. “When your police came to look at your fallen star, they thought little of it. They would probably just take the Uth stones for examination and force you to move away so they could dig down under the fallen star to see why it is growing a root. That would probably destroy your home.”
“And what of these ‘Uth’ stones?” asked Donna Theresa. “You say that they seem to have strange powers, and have done wonderful things for George and the Chinese girl. Is that what we must use to stop the Grak somehow?”
“We don’t know,” replied the protector meaningfully. “They do indeed appear to have unusual powers, but there seems to be no way to control them. I suspect they were simply used by the Grak to transport the fallen stars to the correct location, and nothing more.”
The four were silent for a time, each lost in his own thoughts. Even Emberly had stopped munching on cookies, having reached her fill at last. George’s mind was absorbed by a question he dared not ask, at least not with the Protector present. Had Donna Tereza been told by the Ziphon to watch out for the person she least suspected? If not, then why had he and Jiu Na been given that warning, but not her?
Yet, even as George thought the question, he knew the answer. She hadn’t known anything about the existence of the Protector until now! Naturally therefore the Ziphon would not need to warn her to be wary of him. This further confirmed that the Protector must be the one who would betray them.
Finally, the protector took a small ring from his pocket and held it out to Donna Tereza. “Take this,” he said. “It’s a communicator ring. If anything happens, you can put it in your ear like so—“ the protector demonstrated how to slide it into the ear—“then you can call me or George or Jiu Na at any time by simply speaking the person’s name you want. The ring they have will tighten on their finger and they can then put it in their own ear and talk to you.”
“Amazing!” said Donna Tereza, looking at the ring in wonder. The protector stood up. “We must go now, since it’s getting dark.”
In surprise, George looked out the window and saw that indeed it was twilight.
Moving toward the door, the protector said to Donna Tereza, “let us know if anything happens, and we’ll do the same. Don’t be afraid to call often.”
“Of course,” she replied softly.
“Thank you for the cookies, Donna Tereza,” said Emberly. The protector looked at her in surprise and smiled. “That’s very good, Emberly. I’m glad to see you remembered your manners.”
“I don’t know anything about manners, but I know good cookies when I eat them,” replied Emberly. “ And I know enough to say thank you.”
“You are very welcome,” said Donna Tereza with a broad smile. “You are welcome to come any time and have more.”
After saying their good-byes, the three silently ascended the hill toward the car. George was deep in thought about what Donna Tereza had told them. Finally he said to the protector, “the Uth stone did nothing for her like it did for me and Jiu Na. And she never had the vision of the spaceship like Jiu Na and I had.”
“That’s probably only because she left it on a shelf,” replied the protector.
“And the Grak when they came to her, didn’t hurt her,” continued George. “But they brought her husband with them.”
“Her story is a bit different than yours and that of Jiu Na,” agreed the protector. “Perhaps it is because she is elderly, and you two are young. At any rate, her story is not too far different when you think about it. It definitely confirms the Grak are up to something that involves you three, and also her husband and your fathers. I assume the Grak are holding the three men prisoner for some reason, although it’s hard to imagine why the men would be important to their plan.”
They had reached the car. Quickly they got inside and Ant Number 4 began to move forward toward the transporter door. George was silent. He felt a significant amount of confusion and worry. He wanted so badly to ask the protector more questions, to try to probe and figure out what the Grak were up to. Indeed, he yearned to trust the protector again, to be able to believe him, and for him to be on their side.
But he could not ignore the Ziphon’s warning, a warning that had come only to him and Jiu Na, and not to Donna Tereza. He had thought coming along with the protector might give him a clue as to how the protector was working for the Grak, and what he and Jiu Na could do to stop them, but there had been nothing. It still was all a mass of confusion in his mind, and made little sense.
There was a flash of color, a brief vision of music and sound, and then they were through the transporter and back in the rich, California sunshine near the fallen star. This time, thankfully, there were no bushes or Grak waiting for them.
“You seem worried,” said the protector as they drove toward town. George looked up to see the protector staring at him in the rear view mirror.
He cleared his throat, trying to force himself to act casual. “I guess I am a bit,” he said.
“Well, I guess I can’t blame you,” replied the protector. “It all seems strange and confusing. The Ziphon said there was something you and the others could do to help, but we have no clue what it is. Meanwhile your father is still a prisoner of the Grak, and you’re powerless to help him. I’d be worried too if I were you.”
George didn’t respond. He wished that was all he had to worry about. Naturally, he couldn’t tell the protector that he was also worried about his own suspicions of him.
Rounding a corner, Emberly suddenly pointed and said, “what’s that?” They saw an ice cream truck parked up the street, with a group of children gathered around it.
“That’s an ice cream truck,” replied the protector. “Do you want some?”
“Why would I want a truck?” answered Emberly. “I can’t drive.”
The protector laughed. “Not the truck. The ice cream. It’s a food that tastes good. Here, we’ll stop and try some.”
The protector instructed Ant Number 4 to pull over. As they got out, the protector asked George, “do you think you have time? Has your mother tried to call?”
George quickly pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. “No,” he said in surprise. “There are no messages. Ever since she had the happy memory pill she hasn’t been as protective.”
“That’s the after affect of the pill,” said the protector. “It leaves a happy residue for awhile that makes the person more friendly toward you.”
They had arrived at the truck. Emberly was looking with fascination at the various ice creams the driver sold.
“They sell bombs!” she exclaimed in wonder. “Won’t they explode?”
George laughed. “Those are bomb pops,” he said. “They’re popsicles, not real bombs.”
“And look at the funny people,” said Emberly, pointing at the cartoon character ice creams. “Is it o.k. to eat people? I’m not sure that’s polite.”
“It’s just ice cream shaped like people,” the protector said with a smile. “Here, I’ll get us all some bomb pops.”
The protector paid the money and gave them their bomb pops. Emberly stared at hers for a moment, as if she expected it to blow up in her face.
George unwrapped his popsicle, and stuck the end in his mouth. “Try it,” he said to Emberly. “It’s good.”
Emberly unwrapped her bomb pop and took a bite. Her face suddenly screwed up in horror and she threw it on the ground.
“It’s cold!” she cried. “It’s freezing my mouth.”
George wasn’t sure whether to laugh, or look the other way. The ice cream vender was staring at them curiously.
Gently the protector picked up the bomb pop. “It’s just a frozen food,” he said. “It’s supposed to be cold. But it’s still good to eat.”
“But the Grak are cold,” Emberly said simply. But after a moment a smile came across her face. “Give it here,” she demanded, taking her bomb pop from the protector.
“That one fell on the ground, and isn’t clean,” said the protector. “Let me buy you another one.” However, before he could do anything, Emberly took the bomb pop over to a tree and smashed it into the tree trunk.
“There!” she said in triumph. “Now the tree has had some cold food, and can make cold shade with its leafs.”
The ice cream vender was staring at them as if they had gone mad.
“Perhaps we’d better go,” the protector said as discretely as he could. Silently the three headed back to the Volkswagen. Emberly kept looking back over her shoulder with a big smile on her face.
“That was polite, wasn’t it?” she said. “Giving food to others is polite, just like Donna Tereza gave us cookies.”
“I suppose so,” replied the protector.
Emberly stopped, looking puzzled. “Then why didn’t the tree say ‘thank you?’”
The protector smiled. “Hop into the car,” he said simply, opening the car door. “We’d better take George home.”
The protector had been right about the after affects of the happy memory pills. George’s mother didn’t seem troubled at all that he hadn’t returned until early afternoon, even though he hadn’t called to say he would be late. Janet was once again beside herself, and tried to talk their mother into punishing him. But their mother just smiled sweetly, and said she didn’t think there was any need for that. Finally, Janet threw her hands up in the air and went to her room to sulk.
After lunch, George called Jiu Na and told her what had happened in Portugal. She greeted the news somberly, especially when she heard of the attack by the Grak on Donna Tereza. “You could be next,” she said in an ominous tone. “It could happen anytime, and anywhere.”
“But it could happen to you too,” replied George simply. “We don’t know what the Grak are up to, but it seems to involve us and our fathers. Anything could happen at any time!”
“I know,” said Jiu Na, her voice sick with worry. “I can’t think of anything else these days, and I’m so jumpy I don’t know what to do.”
Once again she warned him repeatedly to be wary of the protector. She was especially troubled that he had agreed to meet the protector again the next morning so they could plan what to do next. George felt uncomfortable at her warnings, but said little. He knew if he voiced his confusion about whether the protector was for them or against them, Jiu Na would just become more concerned and warn him even more strongly. Finally, having little else to say, they ended the call—after Jiu Na made him promise to call again the next morning, before he met the protector. George knew the reason. She was going to try to talk him out of going with the protector again.
The afternoon passed slowly. A brownish haze seemed to settle in the air, which matched George’s mood. He was restless and uneasy. He fretted in his room for awhile, went outside and fretted some more, then came back to his room. Always in his mind were worries and thoughts of the Grak and what they were up to, of his father and how he was held prisoner, and of the protector and whether he was friend or foe. The Uth stone in his pocket felt so cold it seemed to pierce into George’s leg. He finally left the pouch containing the stone on his dresser.
The evening was no better. Watching TV seemed meaningless, and there was nothing else to do. George’s mother, sensing that something was wrong, threatened again to take him to the doctor. It was the first time George had seen Janet smile in days.
Finally it was time for bed. After slowly changing into his pajamas and turning out the light, George lay staring at his ceiling for a long time.
What did it all mean? What was he to do? Who was he to trust? Why were his father and the other two men being held prisoner by the Grak? What was the protector’s role in all this? What could George possibly do to get out of this mess? And most of all, what did the Uth stone have to do with anything?
With heavy questions such as these preying on his mind, George finally dropped off into a fitful sleep. Because of this, he failed to notice when the pouch containing the Uth stone on his dresser started to glow a short time later.
And then there was a sudden loud ‘pop!’ that woke George with a start. Looking wildly all around, he was alarmed to see the same Ziphon sitting on the edge of his bed.
“George Brown,” it said in its voice like gravel, “the time has come. You must decide quickly, or all will be lost!” Then it turned its head slowly toward the dresser, and spoke again. “And you must make the same decision too.”
With another ‘pop!’ the Ziphon was gone.
George rubbed his eyes, then got out of bed, continuing to stare at the spot where the Ziphon had been a moment before.
Should he call Jiu Na, or Donna Tereza? Had they had a visit from the Ziphon too?
Looking over at his dresser, George was alarmed to see the pouch with the Uth stone glowing brightly. He went over and picked it up. Staring inside, he saw the stone glowing more brilliantly than he had ever seen it. He touched it, and the heat nearly burned his finger.
George suddenly sensed something at his window. Turning, he could see a glowing object on the grass a few feet from his house. Going over to the window, he saw in amazement what appeared to be another Uth stone, exactly like the one he was holding!
George flung open the window, and leaned out to look at it more closely. Incredibly, it was indeed another stone, glowing with a pulsing light that George could sense was matched by his own, which still lay in its pouch in his hand.
George was about to go through the window to the new Uth stone, but suddenly hesitated. Was it a trap? How had the Uth stone got there? Had it come with another fallen star? But there was no star in sight.
Had the stone been brought by someone? Yet the protector had said the Grak couldn’t touch the Uth stone. Surely they couldn’t have brought it. George’s heart was pounding in his throat. None of this made any sense!
Still unsure what to do, he slipped the ring from his finger and put it in his ear. “Calling Jiu Na,” he said firmly. There was no answer. “Calling Jiu Na!” he said again with greater urgency. Why didn’t she answer? She had always responded quickly before.
George’s mind was racing. The Ziphon had said the time was now. Another Uth stone was outside, and his own Uth stone was glowing. Something was clearly happening. Yet, George still had no clue what he was supposed to do, and no idea regarding what he could do to stop the Grak.
“Calling Jiu Na,” George repeated again, firmly. Why didn’t she answer? With sudden inspiration, George said, “Calling Donna Tereza.” Maybe at least she would respond. But there was still no answer at all.
Should he try to call the protector? But if he did, wouldn’t that play into the hands of the Grak? Indeed, George realized with sudden horror, wasn’t that why Jiu Na and Donna Tereza were not answering? They had all received their rings from the protector, and if he was on the Grak’s side, then he probably was controlling their communications. In fact, he suddenly realized in horror that the Protector had probably listened in on each of the conversations Jiu Na and he had had in which they had talked about their suspicions of him!
A sudden shadow appeared to the left of the window. Before George could pull back or do anything there was a loud crack, and a whip darted inside the open window and curled tightly around him, binding him fast.
“NO!” George cried in desperation. Before he could do or say anything else, the whip was pulled tight and he was jerked through the window, falling with a thud to the ground. Rough hands grabbed him from behind and stuffed a gag in his mouth, and also tied his hands and feet. He felt a wave of cold and despair wash across him. He was turned roughly around and found himself staring into the face of another Grak, smiling at him cruelly, its foul breath nearly overpowering him.
Turning, George saw in shock that his father was standing a short distance away, his head bowed in sadness. Slowly his father walked over to the Uth stone, picked it up, and put it in a small envelope he pulled from his pocket.
George’s eyes opened wide in wonder. His father had brought an Uth stone! How did he get it, and why did he have it? His father looked up at him with glazed, sad eyes. His mouth moved, but no sound came out.
The Grak roughly picked George up and flung him over its shoulder like a sack of potatoes. He saw another Grak grab his father. Then the beasts started to move with amazing speed, racing down the streets that led out of town and toward the fallen star.
George tried to pound the Grak with his fists and kick with his legs, but was bound so tightly that he could hardly move. He tried to sing ‘Joy to the World,’ but with the gag in his mouth he could do nothing more than choke.
A waive of despair flooded over him. This was crazy. The whole thing was crazy. He was just a kid in California. He couldn’t stop a race of intergalactic monsters. He should have told the police or his mother or even Janet about what was going on. And now, tonight, he had let himself be distracted when he saw the other Uth stone, and had been easily captured. It had been no trouble at all for the Grak to get him. And now, all was lost. Whatever good he was supposed to do was clearly no longer possible.
In panic, George saw that they had reached the outskirts of town and were moving rapidly toward the field with the fallen star. He struggled again, trying to work his way free, but it was no use. He tried to cry out, but merely gagged on the cloth that had been rammed in his mouth by the Grak.
Suddenly, George heard a voice in his ear.
“George!” it said in a worried tone. “Are you all right?”
George’s mind reeled. Where was the voice coming from, and whose’ voice was it?
“George!” the voice repeated. “Answer me. Are you all right?”
In shock George realized it was the voice of the protector. The communication ring was still in his ear, unnoticed by the Grak!
George tried to answer, but of course could only gag and grunt.
“What’s that?” said the voice. “Did you say something? Is anything happening?”
George grunted and coughed again.
“I can hear something,” said the protector. “Can’t you answer? If something is preventing you from answering, try to make three quick noises in a row.”
George did his best, although with the Grak carrying him so roughly he nearly had the wind knocked out of him with every step.
“You’re in trouble!” yelled the voice. “I’ll be right there!”
George’s mind was reeling. Wasn’t the protector in league with the Grak? But if so, why had he sounded so desperate and worried, and then said he would come right away to help? Had George been wrong about him after all?
The Grak carrying George abruptly stopped. Twisting around, George could see that they were at the clearing with the fallen star. At least a dozen Grak were there, smiling cruelly. The creature which had carried him dumped him unceremoniously on the ground. George tried to stand, but his bindings held him fast. He could only struggle and grunt. The Grak laughed, with a sound like ripping metal.
George spotted his father at the edge of the crowd, being shoved and kicked by the Grak. He tried in vain to call out to him. Then George’s eyes widened. There was a small spaceship there, hardly noticeable in the dark because of its black paint. The Grak were pushing his father inside it.
His father turned and looked at George. There was a piercing sadness and a yearning, pleading look in his eyes. In the split second their eyes met George recognized the Dad he had known, who used to laugh and joke and make their home so pleasant. It was as if his father were reaching out to him with his eyes, pleading for understanding, for forgiveness, for hope. George knew in that instant that his father would never betray him, but had been used and controlled by the Grak.
And then the connection was broken as the Grak shoved his father through the doorway and slammed the hatch. In a matter of seconds the spaceship hummed, then roared into the sky and out of sight.
The Grak in the clearing were running back and forth, grunting to each other urgently, preparing for some unknown event that was about to happen. Suddenly George was picked up and tossed toward the fallen star. He landed next to it with a crunch, his legs buckling beneath him in pain. He felt the communicator ring fall from his ear.
A Grak standing next to the fallen star laughed, then roughly lifted him up and without warning, swung a large, curved knife straight toward his heart.
It seemed as if time stood still as the knife blade came slowly toward George. The Grak’s eyes gleamed red and cruel. Then the blade struck home—not into George, but across the bindings on his hands and feet, which fell loose on the ground. The Grak grabbed George and forced his hands apart, then pointed at his right hand. Looking down, George saw in alarm that he was still carrying the bag which contained the glowing Uth stone.
George quickly closed his hand over the bag, but the Grak pried it open again, and held it open. Then another Grak gingerly lifted the bag, wincing in pain as he did so, and turned it over so that the Uth stone fell into George’s palm. The stone was hot, and seemed to be throbbing. When George closed his hand over the stone the Grak grunted in relief.
George was twisted around again, and his other hand was forced up, onto the hook of the fallen star, where the Grak deftly tied it in place with a stout rope. Then it looped a scabby, brittle belt tightly across George’s hand that held the Uth stone, so that he couldn’t open it or drop the stone. The binding was so tight and the stone so hot that George winced in pain. The Grak laughed in his face, its putrid breath nearly overpowering him.
A Grak at the side of the clearing suddenly barked an order, and Grak from around the clearing started running toward him. In that instant George realized that there was another black spaceship behind them. All but two of the Grak boarded the ship, which quickly roared to life and lifted into the sky.
One of the remaining Grak ambled over to George, and smiled cruelly down upon him. Spittle dripped from its open mouth onto George’s leg, stinging him like a wasp where it landed.
“Thank you,” the Grak said unexpectedly with a mock bow. “Thank you for helping us destroy you.” Then it laughed a course laugh that sounded like breaking glass, and walked to the other side of the clearing.
There was sudden, unexpected silence. The two Grak stood quietly at the side of the clearing, watching, doing nothing. No one else was in sight, and nothing moved. George struggled vainly against the bindings that held his hand tied to the hook of the star. He also tried to stretch his other hand, to shake off the belt that held his folded hand carrying the Uth stone. He tried to bite off each of the bindings, and to twist his feet up and push against them to pry them lose, but it was all in vain. The bindings were simply too tight. The Grak at the side of the clearing laughed with evil pleasure.
And then, a brilliant shaft of light split the air as if the sun itself had come down to the clearing. In shock and amazement, George saw that the shaft of light extended from somewhere north of him in space, and came down to his hand holding the Uth Stone. It enveloped the hand with a brilliance that made George shut his eyes, temporarily blinded. Yet, amazingly, there was no burning or heat. The stone in his hand now felt cold, like a small lump of ice.
The earth suddenly shook and reeled, knocking George off his feet. Staggering, he tried to stand up. The beam of light did not change, but continued constant and steady. The Uth stone in his hand was growing warmer. Looking around, George saw that the Grak had taken shelter behind a large rock at the side of the clearing. They seemed afraid of the light, yet remained there, watching George. The earth rocked again.
And then, in horror, George understood.
He was the link. He and his father, and their two stones. The powerful beam of energy needed to grasp the hooks and stop the earth’s rotation was not from a power source on the Grak’s ship. It was a link between the stone his father held in his hand on the Grak ship far above him in space, and the stone he was holding himself in the clearing. That was why the intergalactic police had found nothing on the Grak ship. The energy was from the Uth stones themselves. And George had no doubt that the same link had been made between Jiu Na in China and her father on the Grak ship, and between Donna Tereza in Portugal and her husband Jose. The protector had said only the pure in heart could touch or use the Uth stones. Therefore, the Grak could not use them, although they had somehow discovered their secret. The purity of he and his father and the others was being used by the Grak to destroy them all.
George tried to call out, but gagged again on the cloth in his mouth. He choked in despair, his eyes filling with tears. He fell to his knees, shaking uncontrollably in horror and hopelessness.
The shaft of light continued, uninterrupted. The earth swayed again, stronger this time, twisting George around to hit the fallen star. His eyes glazed at the impact, and for a second things went black. The Uth stone in his hand was growing slowly warmer. George felt dizzy, and sensed that consciousness was fast leaving him.
In a last desperate surge of despair he cried out with all his might for relief and for help. Once again his cry caught in his throat because of the gag. But then three things happened in rapid succession.
First, George heard a cry of pain nearby, as if from a creature under attack. He heard angry shouts and the sound of fighting.
Second, he noticed the beam of light waver shooting up into space from the fallen star twist as if it were a snake.
And third, he heard a clear voice in his mind, speaking directly to his soul, a voice so soft and gentle it seemed completely foreign to what was happening around him. It was a voice he had never heard before.
“What is it you want?” the voice asked simply.
“I need help!” George answered in his own mind. “The Grak are using me to destroy the earth. I need a way to stop them!”
“Why?” came the voice again.
“Because if I don’t stop them, everyone will die!” George answered in frustration.
“And what price are you willing to pay for help?” came the voice.
“I’ll give anything!” cried George again in his mind. “Anything!”
“Anything?” asked the voice again, gently. “Even your life?”
George hesitated. He thought of his mother, no doubt awakened by the shaking of the earth. She was probably beside herself at not finding George in his room. He thought of Janet and the fun times they had had together in earlier years, in spite of how obnoxious she sometimes was now. He thought of his father, so kind and gentle, who seemed to always know just what to do. He thought of his friends, Alex and Michael, and other people he knew in Bartletville. Was he willing to give them up? Yet, if he didn’t what would happen to them?
“There is hope, if you decide quickly,” came the voice again, in a peaceful whisper, almost like laughter. “I, too, am being used to destroy. I am the stone in your hand. Together we can act, but only if we both are united in our sacrifice and act quickly. Neither of us can hold back, and neither of us can do it alone. We must both be willing to sacrifice everything in order to achieve success. Are you willing?”
And then George understood completely. The person he least suspected who might betray him had not been the protector or his father or anyone else. It was he, himself. His own hesitation and unwillingness to act would betray not only him, but all those he held dear. This was why the Ziphon had kept saying he had to act quickly. If he stopped to think, if he hesitated, the opportunity to stop the Grak would pass.
“Are you ready?” the voice asked again, simply, yet urgently. Without being told, George knew that he could no longer hold back. The decision had to be made NOW.
George closed his eyes tightly. He could feel tears stinging his eyelids. “Yes!” he cried in sudden anguish. “Of course I will. Yes! I will! I WILL!!”
A gentle ripple of laughter echoed through his mind. “Well done,” said the soft voice. George could feel the earth reeling again beneath his feet, and knew even though his eyes were closed that the beam of light and the energy connection between the Grak spaceship and the fallen star was still there. He could still hear sounds of distant fighting, and was aware that the earthquakes were growing more frequent and more violent. Yet he strangely now felt no fear. He had descended below fear.
“Come,” said the voice, softly. “Let us journey together.”
And then George was flying. As if pillowed on a cushion of velvet, he found himself rising gently into the sky, away from the clearing, away from his city and from California. His eyes were still tightly closed, yet he could see with a greater sharpness and clarity than he had ever seen before. Colors were before him, colors with a texture and beauty that he had never seen. They tickled him with a radiance of light as he lifted gently through them, making him laugh in spite of himself.
And then he was soaring into space. Stars littered his vision in all directions, so many that he could not number them. They seemed to be endless, growing in number and brightness the farther he went. And in the quiet of his inward vision he realized with a start that the stars were singing. The melody was beautiful and lifting, a tune so sacred and simple that George knew he would forget it the instant it stopped, yet it would haunt his memory forever.
He was picking up speed. Instead of the slow movement past clusters of stars he had experienced at the beginning of his journey, the stars now seemed to race alongside him for an instant then disappear, leaving a faint trail at their passing. The kaleidoscope of stars shifted around him, as if each one reached out with invisible hands and rocked him gently onward through their midst.
And then he suddenly saw something black and cold. It seemed to arise from nowhere, then loomed larger and larger with alarming speed. While the heavens around George were so full of stars that he felt like he was in the middle of a black ball full of bright holes, this dark mass blocked out all signs of light in the path it occupied. Yet, while it loomed ever larger and colder before him, George still felt no fear. The humming melody of the stars whispered comfort to him, and bore him onward.
“This is what those on your world call a black hole,” came the gentle voice again in his mind. “Our only choice now is to throw ourselves into it.”
“Why?” asked George in a detached voice. He strangely felt no alarm at this unexpected announcement. He felt only peace. His fear had been left behind. He regarded the black hole as a bird would look at a rock; passive, disinterested.
“Because the journey we have taken is of our minds only,” came the reply. “Our bodies are back at the clearing, attached to the fallen star. By throwing ourselves inside this hole, our minds will be consumed, and the energy link destroying your world will be broken, for it cannot exist without our minds to sustain it. Then the Grak will be stopped, and all will end.”
George looked calmly at the black hole, pondering what the voice had just said. Finally, he asked, “Can’t you just use your power against the Grak? Why was it necessary to journey here?”
“Because you are holding me,” came the simple reply. “You are between me and them, so I could not act against the Grak unless I destroyed you first. And that is something I could never do, since you are pure in heart.”
“Our only alternative was this journey, and this sacrifice. But it must be a joint sacrifice to be effective. I must also sacrifice myself to stop the energy link on earth. Your sacrifice or my sacrifice alone will not work.
“It is still not too late to change your mind. Even now, your sacrifice must be voluntary, not forced by me. And mine must be voluntary as well.”
George looked disinterestedly at the black hole looming before him, hovering like an evil mouth of cold, ready to swallow them. Then he asked, “And what is inside the black hole?”
“I do not know,” came the voice again. “I only know it is black. If we go in, I do not believe we will ever come out.”
They stood on the edge of the hole for only an instant. Then in complete calm, the voice again said, “Are you ready?”
“Yes,” responded George without any hesitation.
With a rush they dove into the black hole as if into a pond of black water. As they did so, all the stars and their gentle singing instantly disappeared. Everything was now black and cold, with an iciness more frozen and penetrating than anything George had ever felt. Consciousness was fading. The end was here …
… the sacrifice had been made …
… the price had been paid …
… and then suddenly, unexpectedly, there was light again. And singing. And unspeakable joy. For the first time on his journey George opened his eyes. The black hole still stretched in front of him, filling a vast expanse of space. Yet it was rapidly growing smaller, as if it were shrinking. Stars still spun around him as if on a whirling, black carousel, singing their songs of hope and joy. He looked at his hand. It was open and the Uth stone was glowing.
“I do not know what is happening,” the voice said in his mind again, once more with incredible calmness. “Our bodies have somehow joined us here, and the energy link on earth with the Grak ship has been broken. Some other power is pulling us. It pulled us out of the black hole, and is taking us somewhere.”
“It doesn’t matter,” replied George happily. “All that matters is that the link is broken. We did what we had to do. We made our decision, and made it in time. The earth is safe.”
The music and the light of the stars flowed over and through George as if he were a fish swimming in a clear, bright stream. The peace and joy he felt was indescribable. It washed over and through George in wave after wave. “I never knew space was like this,” he said. “It’s so beautiful.”
“It is,” agreed the stone. Then it suddenly seemed to glow, as if expanding in light. With a burst of sudden joy, its voice broke into George’s mind. “Now I know who is pulling us! I know where we are going! We are going home!”
“Home?” asked George curiously. “But we just left there.”
“Not your home,” came the voice again, brimming with happiness. “We are going to mine! Turn and look.”
With a little effort, George turned and saw to his surprise what looked like a glowing, large star seeming to zoom toward them, brighter and more clear than all the others around it. Although its brilliance was dazzling, it did not hurt his eyes. He continued to stare at it in wonder, as if hungrily eating the pure light that was radiating from within it.
The star loomed rapidly larger. As it did, George was startled to see that it was not burning like the other stars. Rather, it was clear and glowing.
“This is my home,” said the voice again, happily. “A home I left millions of your earth years ago, when I was in my infancy. It is drawing us to it. It is taking me back. It has forgiven me for leaving.”
As they drew closer, George could see that what he was approaching was a round ball of glass, billions of times larger than the earth. With wonder he saw that he could look right through it, through billions and billions of miles of its clear interior, and see stars glowing on the other side without the slightest distortion.
The glowing planet loomed larger and larger. It filled George’s whole vision. And as they rapidly approached its surface, George could hear the singing of countless voices, united in a song of joy and gladness that far exceeded any music George had ever heard, even the song of the stars. The singing surrounded him, generated by the voices of untold numbers of stones like the one he was holding, who collectively made up this wondrous world.
Gently, they touched down on the planet’s surface. To George’s surprise, it felt soft like a pillow, even though it looked like solid, hard glass.
“Thank you,” said the voice in George’s mind again. “Thank you for joining my sacrifice. By giving up life, it was given back to us again. And it made it possible for me to come home at last.”
George looked at the glowing Uth stone in his hand. He smiled. “Thank you, for answering my cry for help, and for saving me and my world.” Slowly he lowered his hand and let the stone fall from his fingers, toward the ones it loved. With startling clarity, George understood now that his stone and every bit of the planet where he now stood—which was made up of billions upon billions of similar stones—was alive and vibrant, singing and joyous.
The stone fell gently from George’s hand, as if in slow motion. He heard a distant fading echo in his mind. “I’m home!” It said simply. “Home at last.”
Looking up, George saw to his surprise that Jiu Na and Donna Tereza were standing across from him. Each of them held in their hands their stone like his. They were both smiling. He did not need to ask what had happened. He knew that they had shared an experience just like his.
Slowly they too dropped their stones, which floated like feathers toward the surface. George grinned at Jiu Na and Donna Tereza, who smiled back in return. Joy and happiness seemed to leap between them like a living creature. It was an inexpressible joy, the likes of which none of them had ever felt before.
And then, without knowing why, George slowly closed his eyes. He felt himself gently falling … falling … like a feather on a pillow.
And then he remembered no more.
George woke up suddenly. Sunlight was streaming in his window. He was lying at home in bed. It felt soft and light and wonderfully warm and cozy. He yawned and stretched. He felt light and happy. He must have had a wonderful dream.
His door opened suddenly. “George?” said his mother in a whisper, poking her head in his room. “Oh, good, you’re awake!” she said with a smile, pushing the door open wide. “I don’t know how you could have slept through an earthquake like we had last night, but somehow you did. You are one sound sleeper.”
“Earthquake?” asked George stupidly.
His mother laughed. “It was a doozy. There were shocks that kept getting stronger and stronger. The last one got up to 5.5 on the Richter scale. Then they suddenly stopped. It’s all over the news.”
“Wow,” said George getting out of bed, and rubbing his head. A dim memory was stirring in his mind, as if he should know what she was talking about. “That’s weird. That was last night, huh? Why didn’t you—“
He stopped in mid sentence. There were two people standing quietly behind his mother. They looked like kids his age. Seeing his look, his mother smiled. “Proteus is here to see you,” she said warmly. “And his sister Emberly. He says you two just met and have been playing together. Why didn’t you tell me about them?”
“Well…” said George slowly, his mind trying to grasp what was going on. He didn’t know either of those kids. Yet the same nagging feeling was flopping around in his mind, as if he should know them, or know something about them. But for some reason, he couldn’t seem to remember. “I forgot, I guess,” he said at last.
“Well,” she said, turning to go, “come on out for breakfast in a minute. Then you can go out and play.” She disappeared down the hall.
The boy and girl stepped into George’s room. “Hello,” the boy said pleasantly. “It’s good to see you looking so well. Especially after what happened last night.”
George stared at them blankly. “It’s not polite to stare, you know,” said the girl after a moment.
“Do I know you?” asked George curiously. The nagging feeling of familiarity in his mind was growing stronger. But, like a shadow, it still eluded him.
The boy laughed. “Of course you know me,” he said. “I’m the protector.”
“The protector?” repeated George slowly. The name sounded vaguely familiar, yet George couldn’t quite place it for some reason.
The boy pulled a pen from his pocket and stepped over to George. He held the pen up to George’s eye and looked through it. George pulled back in alarm, but could see that it was not really a pen at all, but some type of hollow tube.
“Hmm,” said the boy. “I think I understand.” He put the pen back in his pocket, then pulled out three pieces of candy.
“Oh, good!” exclaimed the girl, reaching out for one. “I’m glad to see you came prepared.”
“Here,” said the boy, holding out the candy to George. He took it slowly, still looking curiously at the boy. Slowly he put it in his mouth. It tasted like butterscotch and fresh rainwater, mixed with chocolate. “Hey,” said George. “This is pretty good!”
And then he remembered everything in a rush.
“The fallen star!” he yelled. “And the Uth stone! My father had one too! The Grak tricked us, and nearly won! And then the Uth stone took me away!”
The protector laughed, holding up his hand. “Take it easy. One thing at a time. Whatever you went through last night made you experience temporary memory loss. The ‘remember all’ candy I just gave you restored your memory. I must say, I was hesitant to give it to you. You seemed so happy without it.”
“I’m so glad you did!” said George without hesitation. “I would never want to forget where I went, or what I felt. It was so beautiful!”
“Beautiful?” said the protector curiously. “When I started fighting the Grak last night and saw you tied to the fallen star, it sure didn’t look beautiful. And then suddenly you disappeared. Where did you go? And how did you escape?”
George opened his mouth to reply, then closed it again. How could he possibly describe what he had experienced? It was so overpowering, so fantastic and wonderful, that it seemed more like a dream than something that had really happened. Could he even put it into words?
Emberly was still happily smacking on her candy. The protector sat down on the edge of the bed, not waiting for George to answer. “After I called you on the communicator ring and you couldn’t talk, I knew you were in trouble,” he said. “So I came rushing here and found you gone and the window open. I quickly transformed a cricket into a temporary likeness of you that would last a few hours so your mother wouldn’t panic when she found you gone. Then I headed straight for the fallen star. I found two Grak there, and could see you tied to the fallen star in the background, with a beam of light shooting up into space. I was fighting the Grak when you suddenly disappeared. Then the Grak I was fighting ran to a nearby spaceship and rushed off as well.” He looked up at George expectantly, obviously wanting him to fill in what had happened next.
“Well,” said George slowly, “I guess it’s sort of hard to explain. The Uth stone took me away.”
“Really?” said the protector, fascinated. “I always thought it had strange powers, but I never thought it would be the key to your escape. I assumed it was just used to transport the fallen stars to earth.”
“Actually, the Uth stone was the key to everything,” said George. “It was the energy source used by the Grak to stop the earth’s rotation. They did it by some type of connection between the Uth stone I held in my hand on earth, and one my father had on the Grak ship in space.”
“Fantastic!” exclaimed the protector, standing up in excitement. “So, that’s why the intergalactic police never found any large energy turbines, or any other power source on the Grak’s ship! You were carrying it around in your pocket the whole time! And your father had one too!”
The protector began to pace the room rapidly, smacking his right hand into the palm of his left one. “How silly of me not to see it!” he exclaimed. “It all makes sense now! That’s why they kidnapped your father and Jiu Na’s father and Donna Tereza’s husband, and the Grak made sure only the three of you found Uth stones. The Grak probably threatened your father and the other men, saying they would hurt you if they didn’t cooperate. They undoubtedly used the men to carry the stones. Those stones were the key to it all! I should have realized!”
“And I guess that’s why I had all those dreams where my father came and wrote in my hand,” said George. “Only, I’m thinking now that they weren’t really dreams. Maybe he really did come.”
“Probably so,” said the protector. “It must have been all part of how to make the Uth stones work, how to make the energy connection between the stone in your father’s hand on the Grak ship, and the stone in your hand at the fallen star. It would seem they had to do that for about a year before the connection between the Uth stones could be fully and completely made.” The protector turned to stare intensely at George. “But you still haven’t told me how you escaped, and where the Uth stone took you.”
“Well,” said George slowly, sitting up in bed and looking out the window at the bright California sunshine. “It just kind of … did.” George felt a medley of confused emotions coursing through his mind. Part of him wanted to tell the protector everything, but another part held the experience he had had with the Uth stone as being so sacred, that it almost seemed like it would be cheapened by being put it into words.
And then there was the whole issue of the sacrifice he and the Uth stone had been willing to make. How could he ever talk about that? Pulling the bed sheet up to his neck, George suddenly felt very self conscious.
“It must have been quite something, for it to be so hard to tell” said the protector quietly. “Just fill me in on the general details. There’s no need to tell me all the specifics.”
“Sure,” said George simply. Although he felt a bit uncomfortable talking about what had happened, he was still greatly relieved to be able to trust the protector again, to know that he was not in league with the Grak as George had suspected. Silently, George vowed to never tell the protector of his suspicions.
And so, George slowly told his story, starting with the Ziphon’s warning, the glowing Uth stone he had seen through the window, his capture, being carried to the fallen star and then being tied to it, and finally the gentle voice that came into his mind.
When he came to this part he proceeded slowly, pausing often, reliving the amazement, the trust and peace, and the joy that he had felt while his mind traveled through space with the mind of the Uth stone. He told quickly of their going into the black hole, and then of the wonder of being pulled out of it, and from there all the way to the planet Uth. By the time he finished, George found he was speaking in a reverent whisper so that the protector and Emberly had to strain to hear him.
“Wow!” said the protector quietly after George had finished. “That is absolutely amazing! Incredible!” He began to pace the room again, shaking his head in wonder.
“Didn’t you know the stars can sing?” asked Emberly unexpectedly. “We hear them all the time on my planet.”
“No,” said George, looking at Emberly in surprise. “I didn’t know that.”
“Nor did I,” said the protector, looking at Emberly with a suppressed smile. “Probably there are only a few creatures in the universe who can hear them. Being linked through the Uth stone while traveling through space, George had that pleasure, at least temporarily.”
Turning to George, the protector said, “Did I hear you right in saying that the entire Uth planet is alive?”
“Yes,” said George simply. “And it wasn’t just a single life form, but billions and billions of them, all in one place. And they all seemed to be singing …” Remembering the brightness and beauty of the Uth planet, he could feel again the incredible sense of joy and peace he had experienced there. It was truly indescribable.
“They are tremendously powerful,” said the protector quietly. “To generate enough energy to grab the fallen stars and stop the earth’s rotation—that is an immense amount of power! And then to pull you out of a black hole, and instantly bring your body there from earth, and to preserve your life—since there is no air to breath in space—and then to pull you all the way to their planet! And finally to send you back home to your own bed unharmed …” His voice trailed off, while he shook his head in wonder.
“There’s one thing I can’t figure out,” said George after a minute. “How did the Grak get the Uth stones in the first place? The Grak aren’t pure in heart. I can’t imagine any of them going to the planet Uth to get them, although my Uth stone told me he had left his planet a long time ago.”
“That is a good question,” replied the protector. “Who knows how the Grak somehow stumbled onto your stone and five others like it, and knew enough about their powers to try to use them in their plan? The Grak are cunning, and are always searching for new weapons they can use to accomplish their goals. They naturally wouldn’t pass up a chance to seize something as powerful as the Uth stones. But how on earth they found them is a complete mystery.”
George looked thoughtfully at the protector for a minute. A single question had been stirring in the back of his mind ever since his memory of the events of last night had returned. Although the joy he had recently experienced had masked it for a time, it could do so no longer. It was not a pleasant question, and George had been avoiding asking it, as if the failure to put it into words would somehow make it go away. Now however, he knew he could delay no longer.
“What about my father?” he asked quietly. “Where is he now? What will the Grak do to him?”
The protector looked somberly at George. “I only wish I had an answer to give you,” he said in a whisper. “I checked this morning with the intergalactic police, and they said that all the Grak ships have left the area. All I know is that the Grak almost never kill or physically harm their captives, although they can abuse them mentally. While you say your father looked very sad when you saw him, he must be very strong to have survived this long.”
George was silent, not knowing what to say. The thought of his father still in the hands of the Grak was almost more than he could bear—especially when he considered how angry they must be at the failure of their plan. What would they do to him now?
“I suppose a bigger question,” said the protector slowly as he began to pace the room again, “is why your father and Jiu Na’s father and Tereza’s husband did not appear on the planet Uth as you and the others did, to return their stones.”
“That’s right!” exclaimed George in sudden realization. “They had Uth stones too! Why didn’t they and their Uth stones come as well?”
The protector shook his head. “I can’t say for sure. Perhaps it was because they didn’t have the knowledge that you and Jiu Na and Donna Tereza had of what was going on. The Grak probably just told them they were doing some little experiment here, and if they didn’t cooperate you would be hurt. So, they didn’t know what the Grak were up to, or that their plan was to destroy the earth, and therefore they didn’t know how vital it was to stop them.”
The protector hesitated. Then he added softly, “The only other explanation I can think of is that perhaps the Grak have found a way to control their minds—although if that’s true, I can’t figure why they wouldn’t have used the same mind control methods on you and the others.”
George felt cold and uncomfortable, in spite of the warm sunshine streaming through the window. The idea that his father’s mind might be controlled by those horrible creatures was more than he could stand. The beauty and joy of his recent visit to the Uth planet seemed suddenly distant and far away, clouded by worry for his father and fear of what he might be going through.
“There’s one more thing you need to consider,” said the protector softly. “The Grak don’t give up easily. When one of their plans fails, they usually try another. Although I hate to say this, perhaps it will give you some hope for your father at the same time that it frightens you. I think the Grak may try again in their scheme against the earth. It may not be through you and Jiu Na and Tereza this time, but perhaps through others. After all, they still have three Uth stones. Since the three men know about earth and its customs, they will probably be preserved and used by the Grak for this purpose. Hence, your father could still be a key part of their plan, and they will probably not hurt him physically.”
George said nothing, but looked quietly out the window. A part of his mind was fighting what the protector had just said, not willing to accept it, while another part was leaping in hope. Perhaps the Grak would indeed preserve his father for that reason. But that would also mean that the earth was still in danger, and that the Grak could strike again. And this time, George would not have an Uth stone to help him.
Emberly was standing by the window. Suddenly she pointed to something they could not see.
“The ice cream store!” she yelled. “The one on wheels that we went to yesterday! He’s right over there!”
The protector strode to the window. “You’re right,” he said with a smile. “He must have turned his music off, or we would have heard him. Do you want to try another bomb pop today?”
Emberly screwed up her face in distaste. “It might explode in my mouth,” she said loudly.
“But remember, we told you, it’s not really a bomb,” said the protector. “It’s just food.”
“Well,” said Emberly, looking back out the window at the ice cream truck. “Maybe I’ll try one of the funny faces. Maybe they’ll talk to me before I eat them!”
The protector laughed, and even George’s lips curved up in a smile.
“Let’s go!” said Emberly excitedly, racing to the door.
“Hold on, now,” said the protector. “George isn’t up and dressed yet.”
Emberly grabbed George’s shirt and pants and threw them on his head. “He can get dressed on the way,” she said simply. Then she opened the door and was gone.
The protector went to the door. “Well, I guess I’d better follow her. There’s no telling what she might do or say. Why don’t you get dressed and come along?”
“Sure,” said George getting slowly out of bed.
“Remember,” said the protector, reaching out and putting his hand on George’s shoulder. “Emberly’s world was also attacked by the Grak. Her parents and all she knew and loved were turned to stone. Yet she can still laugh and find joy in life, somehow.”
George smiled at the protector weakly. “I’ll try not to worry too much about my father,” he said slowly. “Hopefully, he and the others will find a way to escape. They each still have an Uth stone, which hopefully will help them find a way to freedom, just like mine did.
“There’s a very good chance of that,” said the protector with a smile. “When the time is right, it will likely happen.”
“Come on out as soon as you’re dressed,” he said, turning to the door. “After the ice cream, we’ll call on Jiu Na and Donna Tereza and get their stories. Then we’ll dial up the intergalactic police to tell them your story, and get an update from them. Who knows? There still may be something we can do.”
The protector smiled back over his shoulder, then disappeared through the door.
George slowly started getting dressed. The protector was right. This adventure wasn’t over yet. His father could still return. His father still had an Uth stone, and it was inconceivable that its world would leave one of their own kind in the hands of the Grak forever. When the time was right, perhaps when it seemed there was no hope left, they would rescue it—and his father too.
Tossing his pajamas on the bed, George quickly went through the door to join his friends.
Fifth grader Blake Drywater has a new wizard science teacher, who promptly turns Blake’s class into roaches and earthworms. But Blake soon learns there is more than science going on in his classroom. An evil wizard is seeking a powerful potion his teacher has made. And when Blake is given the potion soon thereafter, he finds himself facing problems far harder than any science exam! Book 1 of ‘The Stewards of Light’ series.
Blake Drywater and his fellow unfortunate students at Millard Fillmore Middle School once more find themselves facing an unexpected creature in one of their classes. Because of a sudden ‘neck disorder’ suffered by their math teacher, Blake and his classmates receive a chilling substitute. His name is Mr. Coagulate, who has a strange fascination with blood and dreams. Book 2 of ‘The Stewards of Light’ series.
Flo and Mo are not ordinary babies. Although they are only fourteen months old, they can use a computer, trick any mindless adult they want, and help their goofy detective father solve baffling crimes. Then a mysterious girl comes to their father, claiming that her grandmother has disappeared. Will the babies’ superior brains be able to solve the mystery and save their bumbling parents?
Inventor Uncle Ned has discovered that clouds are alive and can be transformed into common objects. He gives his nephew Talmage a cloud turned into a pen, with the assignment to see what it says and does. However, Talmage soon learns that THIS cloud is nothing but trouble since it insults everyone they meet! And since no one believes pens can talk, they think Talmage is the one saying the insults!
On a dark night in a lonely park in LA, crazy old Pete saves a teenager named Kelly from a suicidal encounter with a street gang. While Kelly initially resists Pete’s kindness, he is gradually drawn into the life and service of his unusual mentor—a lifestyle of total concentration on others, and forgetting of himself. But even Crazy Pete has secrets, and one day, with a shock, the boy learns the terrible history of Pete’s past that turned him into the saint he has become.
Miss Lydia Fairbanks is the newest teacher at Inner City Junior High School, the deadliest school in the state. While the school principal believes she won’t last a day, Miss Fairbanks quickly surprises everyone by not only surviving in the midst of her killer students, but actually thriving in the classroom. But even someone as weak and small as Miss Fairbanks can harbor secrets from the past …
Kate’s journal begins with a very simple entry. “I like pizza and ice cream and going on dates and watching funny movies. I like to swim and text on my phone and go skiing in the winter. Oh, and there’s one more thing you should know about me. I just killed my baby.” Join Kate as she struggles with the aftermath of having an abortion, and the nightmare she never dreamed would follow.
Blake Guv is a starving young attorney fresh out of law school, desperately trying to get new clients. In a mad gamble to obtain some publicity he foolishly enters the race for Governor of his state as an independent candidate. But when a series of unexpected events shove him to the front of the race, Blake is appalled at the prospect he just might win—since he hates politics with a passion!
Shortly before Christmas the tiny town of Afton is shocked when everyone is sued by a man claiming to be Santa Claus. His lawsuit is for wrongfully ‘firing’ him from his delivery job, since he can only come to people who believe. With less than two weeks until Christmas, will Santa’s lawsuit convince them to change their minds?
This book discusses six fundamentals of stupidity that lead to the stupid choices we see all around us. These include the belief that there are no moral values, that God does not exist, and that it is acceptable to become addicted and to treat others badly and be proud. In the end we see that the only sure way to avoid and overcome stupidity is through the saving power of Jesus Christ.
This book explains how the Ninth Amendment is the key to understanding rights in the United States. The founders created the Ninth Amendment to protect unlisted natural law rights as they were understood in their day. This amendment was never intended to allow future generations to create new rights. Rather, it was to safeguard the morality and natural rights of the founding generation.
A false world is like an apple full of worms. It appears juicy and attractive on the outside, but is in fact disgusting on the inside. This book discusses a number of false worlds masquerading as truth but which are in fact false to their core. Included are the false worlds of politics, international relations, law, sexual confusion (premarital sex, abortion and gayness), entertainment and pride.
(Under pen name “Ansel Hatch”)
Stopping speeders by throwing logs in front of their car? Having a man walk in front of the car waving a red flag, to warn it is coming? Putting the initials of the driver on a piece of metal to act as his license plate? Giving a driver’s license to anyone who has the use of both arms? These are but a few examples from this book of the first laws dealing with new-fangled automobiles.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Duane L. Ostler was raised in Southern Idaho, where the wind never stops. He has lived in Australia, Mexico, Brazil, China, the big Island of Hawaii, and—most foreign of all—New Jersey. He has driven an ice cream truck, sold auto parts, been a tax collector, and sued people as an attorney. He has also obtained a PhD in legal history. He and his wife have five children. If you would like to contact Mr. Ostler you can reach him at: mailto:[email protected]